After the Barbenheimer phenomenon exploded across North American multiplexes this weekend, it‘s time to get ready for the atomic aftermath. And the film-industry fallout that could radiate for years.
First, the good news: This past weekend was a tremendous one at the box office. Not only did Barbie, director Greta Gerwig’s A-plus effort in merchandise cinema, blow past analyst’s tracking by earning US$155-million – becoming the biggest opening of the year, squashing the poor ol’ Mario Bros. – but Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer earned US$81-million, too. Those are both remarkable achievements for films that aren’t sequels – and marks the first time in history that two movies opened on the same weekend to more than US$80-million each.
Thanks to the contagious Barbenheimer fever sweeping audiences no matter their demographic – a weirdly organic social media fuelled movement that not even the smartest studio executive could have manufactured – the movies truly and fully felt back this weekend.
It was a pink-and-proton-powered rebuke to the pandemic-era death knell.
If you didn’t get swept up in the fun this past weekend, though, here’s one more piece of sort-of-good news: you will have plenty of time to get in on it yet. Because the way things are looking, there won’t be another bona-fide blockbuster weekend at the movies for months. Maybe even not till 2024.
Just as movie theatre owners were showering themselves with celebratory buckets of melted butter this weekend, they had to also reconcile their box-office receipts with the news that MGM and Amazon Studios on Friday decided to pull the upcoming Zendaya-starring tennis romance Challengers from its September release and punt it to spring next year.
At the same time, rumours are running rampant that Warner Bros. is considering pushing its big fall and winter titles – including Dune: Part Two and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – to dates unknown. It is anyone’s guess until rival outfits like Universal, Paramount and Disney consider pulling similar moves.
Suddenly, what was already a lightly scheduled fall movie season – there aren’t any films coming up in August, September or October that could hope to do the kind of blockbuster business of Barbenheimer – is looking as depressing as a bare shelf at Dollarama.
The studios would like moviegoers to blame all of this on the SAG-AFTRA strike, which along with the ongoing Writers Guild of America labour action, has shut Hollywood down.
Given that the SAG-AFTRA strike prohibits actors from not only showing up on set but also performing promotional duties for their films – including festival appearances, media junkets, red carpets and social media posts – studios think that if there are no famous faces out there marketing their wares, then audience awareness for new releases will be dire. Better to wait until the strike is settled and it’s business as usual.
Except the industry hasn’t been operating as usual for some time now, and the two strikes are proof that the system is broken. Obviously studios want to make as much money as possible on their releases, but they are also the chief architects of their own doom. It is the major studios and streamers – as members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – who have proven to be intransigent, greedy and just shy of cartoon-villain evil when it comes to negotiating with the artists whom they rely upon.
From artificial intelligence to the hoarding of data and measures of success to the near erasure of residuals, members of the AMPTP seem intent on diminishing the livelihood of its workers to further fatten their own bottom lines.
While any labour action is, at its heart, an example of it taking two sides to tango, the facts presented so far make it exceedingly easy to see the AMPTP’s dance card as one being scrawled in the blood of the creative class. And now, by threatening to starve the 2023 release calendar of major new releases – the kind of big films that, as Barbenheimer has proved, can draw the large, eager and diverse crowds who were scared off during the pandemic – the studios and streamers are also punishing their partners in exhibition.
All the talk from studio executives about the magic of the movie-going experience rings rather hollow if they are cutting off the pipeline of product to support those theatres. There is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face – and then there is gouging out one’s eyeballs.
According to a report from Moody’s Investors Service last week, the cost for the AMPTP of settling agreements with the major three Hollywood guilds – SAG-AFTRA, WGA and the Directors Guild of America, the latter of which reached a new collective agreement with the studios last month – would be US$600-million more than they’re currently spending per year.
That might sound like an astounding figure, but consider that it cost Disney a little more than US$200-million to make just six episodes of Secret Invasion – a Disney+ series that even the hardest core of Marvel obsessives seems to be ignoring. Now multiply that figure across every one of the dozens – hundreds? – of streaming series and movies that members of the AMPTP pump out with barely any audience noticing, and it’s clear that there’s some money kicking around to settle this thing, and treat our storytellers right.
As millions of moviegoers can attest, Barbenheimer was a true blast. Let’s hope for more booms, instead of busts.