Is the Sky Really Falling This Time?

Within minutes of the actors strike ending on Nov. 9, Ryan Reynolds was making plans to get back to London and the set of Deadpool & Wolverine, one of the many movies shut down in mid-July when the walkout commenced. He and director Shawn Levy were determined to make their July 26 release date, which they were able to accomplish. For other tentpoles, it was too late, and they would ultimately decamp to 2025.

One studio head says the impact of the writers’ walkout, which lasted five months until a settlement was reached on Sept. 27, also played a major role. “Think of it like this — if the actors’ strike shut down the oil refinery, then the writers’ strike shut down the oil fields.”

Toward the end of the SAG-AFTRA talks, studio chiefs were accused of being disingenuous when saying their 2024 release calendars were in danger every day the four-month strike dragged. Now the impact of those warnings is coming into view. Without the usual parade of tentpoles, including a Marvel superhero pic to kick things off over the first weekend of May, the early summer box office is in tatters after a tough winter and spring. Domestic box office revenue year-to-date is $2.68 billion, down a whopping 24 percent over the same corridor last year and 42 percent behind 2019, the last normal year before the COVID-19 crisis, according to Comscore. In fact, every week has been down this year from 2023; the smallest gap was 11 percent, when Dune: Part Two and Godzilla v. Kong: The New Empire opened.

The deficit has reignited the sky-is-falling debate over the future of theatrical, and whether it can survive the post-pandemic world and the rise of streaming. Box office observers agree that the ecosystem is incredibly fragile but hang on to the hope that moviegoing will pick up in the coming weeks when all-audience tentpoles Inside Out 2, Despicable Me 4 and Deadpool & Wolverine come out, followed by Beetlejuice Beetlejuice in early September. But there won’t be a steady volume of product until 2025. Nor does it help that many movies are opening behind expectations (all eyes will be on Bad Boys: Ride or Die this weekend to see if it can clear $48 million to $50 million in its launch). “We are concerned,” says one studio insider. “You’d be a fool to not be thinking about that. People are not in the moviegoing habit and are firmly ensconced in appointment viewing, which is a huge problem. But there hasn’t been a real igniter.”

Movies like The Fall Guy or Memorial Day’s Furiosa were never intended to be all-audience summer tentpoles that could generate huge grosses, but people expected them to be merely because of when they were dated. The Apes franchise, which saw Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes released in May, has never risen to the full-blown tentpole level since it is sci-fi and targeted at older and younger males. Except for one installment, all the films have grossed less than $500 million globally. (That’s not to say the new Planet of the Apes is a disappointment. It’s the summer’s top earner to date with $339 million in global ticket sales, including $141.2 million at the domestic box office, where it is about to surpass the last installment.)

Before the strikes, the 2024 calendar was wildly different. Deadpool & Wolverine was supposed to open over the first weekend of May in keeping with tradition, but had to move due to the actors strike. Fall Guy had been set to open in early March, which is arguably a far more forgiving date, but was delayed till the first weekend of May.

The weighty list of films that were set to open this summer included Paramount’s next Mission: Impossible movie, Sony’s untitled Karate Kid, Disney’s Mufasa: The Lion King and Marvel’s Thunderbolts

The winter calendar was also impacted; namely, Avatar 3 will no longer open Dec. 20. In some instances, it’s impossible to say these movies moved solely because of the strikes (the Avatar films are notorious for moving). Other films intended for 2024 that headed for 2025 include Blade (which had already moved from 2023), Captain America: Brave New World and Snow White

One veteran financier says moviegoing will rebound when the calendar returns to normal. “The theatrical business isn’t going anywhere — it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. Blockbusters will come. Inside Out 2 may be huge,” this person forecasts. “We won’t return to usual and customary release patterns until 2025.”

But with every movie that disappoints and underperforms, whether Furiosa or The Fall Guy, studio insiders are growing more and more alarmed. “It’s mind-numbing that Furiosa hasn’t grossed $50 million domestically,” says another studio exec. “My worry is that studios will put on the brakes and make fewer movies, which will further contribute to the problem.” 

The May 31 to June 2 weekend is a terrifying snapshot of what can happen when there isn’t a series of tentpoles waiting to unfurl during the summer. With no big new studio release, revenue plummeted 69 percent over the same weekend in 2023, when Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opened to $120.7 million. Holdovers did nice business, too, that weekend: Disney’s The Little Mermaid earned $41.4 million, followed by 20th Century’s The Boogeyman with $12.4 million, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 with $10 million and Universal’s Fast X with $9.6 million.

Fast-forward to the same weekend this year, when Sony’s The Garfield Movie topped the domestic chart with $14 million in its second weekend. Warner Bros.’ Furiosa, also in its sophomore outing, ran out of gas with $10.8 million, followed by Paramount’s May holdover IF with $10.5 million, 20th’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes with $8.9 million and Universal’s The Fall Guy with $4.2 million. Again, none of these meet the definition of an all-audience tentpole, despite hefty budgets in some instances.

To date, Apes is the only summer film to have cracked $100 million domestically even if it, along with IF, are considered moderate successes in their own right (IF has grossed $80.2 million domestically). At the same time last year, The Little Mermaid had grossed $206 million and Guardians $328 million.

“When The Little Mermaid opened to $118 million, people called that soft,” reminds one studio source. “Can you imagine?” 

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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