“It’s wonderful to see you all again,” said the British filmmaker, thanking not only his crew but also “their colleagues and all the crews throughout Hollywood for their support of our strike, as writers and now the actors going out on strike. It’s an important moment in our business, where business models have changed very rapidly, and our deals — with working members of these guilds — those deals have not kept pace with that and they need to be changed.”
With those words, Nolan addressed the roiling conversation around his industry’s current labor unrest — the first time that Hollywood writers and actors have simultaneously struck in 63 years. When the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union representing about 160,000 actors, announced its walkout late last week — unable to come to terms with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) union that represents studios and streamers — Nolan’s own actors walked out of the “Oppenheimer” premiere in London.
Their sudden departure shone a spotlight on the question: How will Hollywood promote its forthcoming projects without the star power of its actors? Then there are the celebrity-driven events themselves, such as red-carpet premieres, film festivals and this week’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, which must adapt to losing A-list wattage, as well.
“Oppenheimer,” which opens this weekend, will likely do fine at the box office; it has benefited from months of promotion, as well as its twinning in the public consciousness with this weekend’s other big film, “Barbie.” Their joint release date spawned the portmanteau and internet phenomenon “Barbenheimer,” as fans embraced the marketing department’s dream that there’s room at the movieplex to support the starkly different releases.
16 ways we think about Barbie
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for the analytics company ComScore, says he expects “Barbie” to gross more than a healthy $100 million during its domestic debut and for “Oppenheimer” to gross about half that.
Also opening this month was “Mission Impossible — Dead Reckoning,” which grossed $80 million domestically over its first five days, falling below expectations despite star Tom Cruise shifting his publicity push into overdrive. That underwhelming U.S. performance (the film has performed better overseas) highlights the fact that even prominent promotion by a movie icon such as Cruise can hit a hard box-office ceiling.
Still, Hollywood was able to trot out its superstars to promote these July releases — as well as Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” — beyond the actors’ initial deadline. The union contract expired June 30, but was extended nearly two weeks as SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP continued to negotiate.
“There’s an open-ended question about whether the [studio] companies intentionally tried to pursue an extension of this contract in order to try to get more promotion in for the summer blockbusters,” SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said by phone Tuesday. “Only they know what was in their minds.” (AMPTP’s member companies had not responded to Crabtree-Ireland’s assertion by press time.)
He notes that it was not his union’s aim to target the summer blockbuster calendar. “What we were saying from the moment we went on strike [is that] our members will provide no services under these agreements, and that includes promotion. To the extent that impacts those feature films, obviously we would rather not be on strike. But if we’re going to be on strike, then we have to do it full-on, because we want to strike to come to an end as soon as possible.”
Crabtree-Ireland underscored that prohibiting actors from promoting such projects as strike-covered feature films, fall TV shows and streaming series is a crucial part of SAG using “every bit of leverage we have.”
“I am really gratified that there’s been tremendous, not just cooperation, but enthusiasm from our members — and even beyond our member community,” including from some social influencers, in withholding promotion of studio and streamer projects, he says.
The first major American pop gathering being affected is Comic-Con, which officially opens Thursday and typically draws more than 125,000 people over 4½ days. The convention’s cavernous Hall H is an annual destination point where studios parade their talent, often tied to superhero, sci-fi and action-fantasy franchises; such industry heavy hitters as Kevin Feige and James Cameron have made the pilgrimage to address the hall’s capacity crowds of 6,000-plus people.
Not every major studio sends talent each year to Comic-Con, but typically the programming offers days of sneak peeks, A-list panels and soon-to-be-viral trailers. This year, though, Hall H is scheduled to have a stripped-down lineup, including a session tied to next month’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie.
Sony, DC, Disney-owned Lucasfilm and Marvel, Universal Pictures, Netflix and HBO are among the studios who have indicated they’ll skip Comic-Con this year.
Without a strong Hollywood presence, some attendees might miss “the vibe that you’re at the center of everything that’s going on,” says entertainment writer Rob Salkowitz, author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.” “You never know who you’re going to run into … and it is definitely going to take away a particular dimension of Comic-Con.”
David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s chief communications and strategy officer, says that his event has always been about celebrating many types of entertainment art. “Most attendees know that not every studio comes to Comic-Con every year, but fans still enjoy the show.
“Tickets sell out roughly eight months in advance of the show, long before exhibitors, guests or programming is announced,” he notes. “This year is obviously different, but there is still so much to see and take part in that I think most attendees are taking it all in stride. There is still a lot of excitement and anticipation for the show.”
And for the studios, the impact of Comic-Con on box-office results isn’t easy to quantify. “Such fan conventions as Comic-Con definitely strike a nerve with the hardcore fan base, but those tickets are already booked,” says analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “While all the ‘free’ publicity will be missed by the studio, most ticket buyers don’t rely on cons to make their cinematic decisions.”
Some industry experts say the true test of how much actor promotion translates into box-office receipts might not come until next month, with the release of such movies as “Blue Beetle,” “Gran Turismo” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” “Haunted Mansion” (opening July 28) was one of the first upcoming films to stage a premiere without its stars — performers in Disney character costumes walked the Anaheim red carpet instead last week — but some of its A-listers were working Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction last month to market the movie.
Some analysts say prohibiting actors’ marketing of their movies might not have a great impact on how the films perform. “Lack of promotion for blockbusters will certainly curtail the media spin as ‘ET,’ ‘Access Hollywood’ and other entertainment outlets will have to pull clips from the vault, but a vast majority of the multiplex masses don’t really vibe off that anyway,” Bock says. “If a popcorn flick meets expectations, it’ll perform well regardless of the whirlwind promotional tours. Honestly, they’re mostly vanity at this point.”
Crabtree-Ireland disagrees. “Promotion is important to the companies just judging by the extreme measures they’re going to try to replace actors who are not available to them at this moment to help promote these projects.”
Two other upcoming releases — “Shortcomings” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” — raise the question of whether an actor-director is violating SAG rules if they promote their contract-covered film; Randall Park and Nia Vardalos, respectively, directed and appear in those movies. “If someone is a hyphenate and they have a dual role in a project [and] their acting role is substantial, then we view that promotional activity as connected to their acting role and therefore prohibited,” Crabtree-Ireland says.
“Now if they have a contractual obligation under the director portion of their contract to do certain publicity-related activities, that is a situation that we will look at on a case-by-case basis to make sure they don’t find themselves” in breach, he notes. (As for Hollywood writers, their union clarified its strikes rules in May; writers cannot attend premieres, for instance, but they can promote their projects on social media.)
The strike rules on actor promotion threaten to affect forthcoming film festivals in such cities as Toronto, Montreal, Venice and New York, as well. “The impact of this strike on the industry and events like ours cannot be denied,” the Toronto International Film Festival said in a statement. “We urge our partners and colleagues to resume an open dialogue. We will continue planning for this year’s festival with the hope of a swift resolution in the coming weeks.”
And in Montreal, the Fantasia International Film Festival has announced that Nicolas Cage, who was due to receive a career achievement award at the genre event, has canceled his appearance, citing the SAG strike.
“Our hearts are with the actors, as well as with the WGA,” the festival said in a statement, “and we hope to see the unions get a fair deal soon.”