Just film strike, dire future

I support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes; the financial inequity between studio executives, working actors, and writers is untenable. But an extended industry-wide pause could be disastrous to theaters and small independent movies. The strike slowdown will also accelerate a general decline of film (at least beyond the biggest blockbusters) as mainstream entertainment.

Let’s start with some cold economics: any remaining 2023 movie with major stars is at risk for a delay into next year. Studios see a marketing campaign without major talent as too high a burden. Stars working the red carpet and holding press junkets generate vast social media shares and journalist coverage. And for minor releases, one prominent actor can be the defining reason for a film to get noticed.

We’re seeing some of these delays already play out. Sony pushed two major 2023 releases – Kraven the Hunter and a Ghostbusters sequel – into 2024. Warner may pivot the blockbuster Dune 2 into next year as well. A24 bumped back the Tilda Swinton starring Problemista from August to an indeterminate date. As the strike extends, expect related announcements to only accelerate.

The biggest four quadrant friendly blockbusters should weather the strike storm ok. The release calendar will get messy, but I suspect huge movies will still make decent bank.

Not so much for the small players. Independents and international features without star power will hang on to fill the fall and winter vacuum, but I question if they will break through to big audiences. As much as I’d love a lot of casual movie watchers to head out to the theater for microbudget indies and Cannes winners, it won’t happen just because The Marvels got a bump.

The visibility problem for small movies has everything to do with money and perception, at least at your typical studio.

Warner Brothers and Universal won’t bump up their marketing budgets for little releases because they see them with limited appeal. Besides, there are reasons to save up, knowing they must shell out as much or more to market Dune 2 and similar huge movies next year.

Nor are studio decisions made purely around an attached stable of films. Today most studios are parts of parent mega corporations that can shift the budget from film marketing and distribution into another investment. For Disney, maybe it’s theme parks, re-releases of classics to the big screen, or non-unionized TV shows on Disney Plus. Warner Discovery refocuses on cheap reality TV and home shows under the Discovery banner. Diversified bets are seen as far safer money makers than buying a bunch of international art house hits at Venice and giving them big ad spends.

Granted, given less practical competition, indies, and international films should get longer theatrical runs in a strike environment. Non-AMPTP associated distributors like A24 and Neon may spend more on marketing in such a scenario. But what happens when fewer people show up at the multiplex? Or when the theater down the street’s revenue craters because dependable holiday blockbusters won’t appear?

The negative economic impact on theaters will be significant. Many chains like AMC were close to bankruptcy during peak pandemic periods in 2020 and 2021. Having a loss in surefire hits for the fall months could be enough to cause more to close. Plunging revenue means fewer theaters or theaters that slash budgets and get less desirable to attend. Fewer and crappier theaters are not the environment where Neon will be thrilled to market Anatomy of a Fall this winter.

Furthermore, fading interest in the multiplex means less spillover or halo effect to other pictures, especially those tiny, foreign, and independent. When heading out to the movies no longer becomes a ritual, when you’re no longer seeing the right poster or trailer, you don’t take a chance on something new.

The usual counterargument to theaters is streaming, but I’ve written about how the availability and discoverability of most movies online is already relatively poor. Granted, if the strike lasts long enough, we might see Prime Video, Max, and Hulu shell out more for small, international fare more often. But I worry most features will remain unnoticed.

Critically, media outside of film won’t have the same difficulties. Netflix can lean on non SAG reliant TV from all over the world. Big music releases proliferate on Spotify and Apple Music. Gaming is having a banner year of critical and popular favorites. Those who don’t do the leg work to readily seek out low-key film releases will have plenty of entertainment elsewhere.

My cynical outlook may be unwarranted. Film survived TV, streaming, and a global pandemic. Great new movies are still out there. Perhaps with a lack of Hollywood studio alternatives, tiny indie and international releases will smash through to the mainstream consciousness. But I’ll reiterate my earlier comparison of film to baseball and rock music. Devotees like myself will continue to show up, but the circle of interest is getting smaller. The strike isn’t helping.