How hard have the Hollywood strikes hit the box office?

While a lack of publicity and star presence have forced some studios to push back release dates, it has also been a year of historic wins for Oppenheimer and Barbie

The Writers Guild of America is meeting with Hollywood studios for negotiations on Thursday. Reuters
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Welcome to the weirdest Hollywood autumn on record. Since the WGA and the Sag-Aftra unions pulled their members out on strike, the film industry has been decimated, with writers and actors manning picket lines.

Hollywood productions like Ridley Scott’s sequel Gladiator 2 have ground to a halt, while blockbusters such as Dune: Part Two have been bumped to next year, bringing back memories of the release-date shuffle of the pandemic era.

Even TV can’t escape, with Amazon Studios announcing this week that its Mr and Mrs Smith reboot is moving to 2024.

Undoubtedly, the strike is devastating for the industry, especially crews left unemployed, unsure when pay and other issues between creatives and the studios will be resolved.

This month, the Venice and Toronto film festivals were removed of the usual glamour, with actors – Emma Stone, for example, in the Venice-winning Poor Things – unable to walk the red carpet and engage in the usual promotional activity. Only a handful were permitted to attend the festivals, as per union rules, with certain independent projects granted waivers by Sag-Aftra.

The question is, how is this lack of promotion affecting the movies?

When the Sag strike was called on July 14, it coincided with the London premiere of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, meaning that the cast were hurried along the red carpet before having to leave. As the film’s staggering box office success ($912 million and counting) has shown, the cast presence wasn’t essential to its success.

Of course, you can – and should – argue that Nolan is a one-off, a box office machine with a legion of loyal fans. The whole "Barbenheimer" phenomenon, as moviegoers flocked back to cinemas buying tickets to see Nolan’s film and Barbie, didn’t hurt either.

What about films that have come since?

Take The Equalizer 3, the third in the action franchise starring Denzel Washington as a streetwise vigilante, based on the 1980s TV series with Edward Woodward.

Opening in the late summer, the film has grossed more than $132 million to date, putting it on a par with its predecessors, all without Washington walking the red carpet, pitching up on chat shows or doing any press junket. It just goes to show that star power still counts for something, as Washington’s fans came out in spite of his no-show on the publicity circuit.

It hasn’t been like this for every movie, however. Disney’s remake of the family-friendly spook-fest The Haunted Mansion was one of the first films hit by the strikes, with the cast, including Danny DeVito, unable to press the flesh. Instead, a premiere was held in their absence, with Disney characters like Mickey Mouse (well, some poor so-and-so in a costume) called upon to pose for photographers.

OK, needs must, as they say, but for a film that already had middling reviews, it was never likely to draw in audiences. On its opening weekend, it took just $33.3 million, the worst bow this year for a Disney movie.

Actors, it seems, are still a precious promotional commodity – at least those with huge social media followings. Originally intended to open Venice, Warners title Challengers shifted to next year, undoubtedly because the studio feels a campaign with star Zendaya (185 million Instagram followers) rather than without her will benefit this relatively small-scale film.

Zendaya also features in the sci-fi sequel Dune: Part Two, alongside Timothee Chalamet, Elvis’ Austin Butler and Lea Seydoux. The value of these stars at a flashy premiere, with pictures beaming around the world, hints at why Warners and producers Legendary Pictures delayed the film’s release.

Not every blockbuster is being moved, though. Gareth Edwards’ forthcoming sci-fi The Creator, featuring Denzel’s son John David Washington, has stuck to its late September release slot, the thinking being that the director of Godzilla and Rogue One is the real star here.

Meanwhile, during Venice, Disney subsidiary Searchlight brought out various HODs (Head of Department) to help promote Poor Things – creatives like cinematographer Robbie Ryan and costume designer Holly Waddington, who are not normally used to being in the spotlight.

Even before the strike, social media influencers – who have their own sizeable followings – were courted by studios to promote movies. That will surely only increase as the strike takes hold.

In some cases advocacy groups are also being engaged: The National Association of Latino Independent Producers, for example, helped get the word out about Blue Beetle, the first superhero movie that truly represented that culture. Even exhibitors are having to get creative (in the US, AMC cinema paired with retailer Walmart to sell branded popcorn).

For sure, nobody wants to see this go on. The quicker the strikes can be resolved, the better for all.

Updated: September 21, 2023, 7:04 AM