Hollywood studios, scrambling to contend with a strike by unionized actors, have started to remove big-budget movies from the 2023 release calendar, newly imperiling theaters and undoubtedly irritating fans.
Sony Pictures Entertainment on Friday pushed back the release of two major films that had been set to arrive in theaters by the end of the year — the Marvel Comics-based “Kraven the Hunter” and a sequel to “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”
In addition, Sony is postponing some of its big 2024 releases. “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” is no longer on track for a March premiere, and a new “Karate Kid” will no longer arrive in June.
Until now, the 2023 theatrical release schedule had been left relatively unscathed by the actors’ strike, which started on July 14. But other studios are likely to follow Sony’s lead. Warner Bros. has been debating whether to postpone “Dune: Part Two,” which is supposed to arrive in theaters on Nov. 3. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” a big-budget superhero sequel, and “The Color Purple,” based on the Broadway musical, are among other 2023 holiday-season movies that could be delayed.
It’s not that the studios need striking actors on set — most of these films are finished or nearly so. Rather, they are worried about a lack of stars to promote them.
Until the strike is resolved, SAG-AFTRA, as the actors’ union in known, has barred its members from engaging in any publicity efforts for films and TV shows that have already been completed. That means no red carpet appearances, no social media posts, no interviews on morning news shows and no participation in newspaper or magazine articles.
Searchlight Pictures, the art house studio, on Monday postponed “Poor Things,” a surreal science-fiction romance, citing the publicity ban. The film, which stars Emma Stone as a Frankenstein-like monster, will arrive in December instead of September. Last week, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer moved “Challengers,” a sex-infused sports drama starring Zendaya, to April from September for the same reason.
SAG-AFTRA has said it is willing to remain on strike until next year in pursuit of better pay from streaming services, protections around artificial intelligence and other gains. No talks are scheduled. About 11,500 movie and television writers are also on strike.
The thinning of the fall release schedule is troubling for a movie theater industry that has only recently shown signs of recovering from the pandemic. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” released last weekend, powered the box office to its highest total since 2019.
Large multiplex chains like AMC and Cinemark have repeatedly said that a steady flow of big movies is crucial to the health of their business. Moviegoing begets moviegoing, with trailers for coming releases that play before audiences one weekend filling seats the next. During the pandemic, the supply of movies dropped sharply, and it has only recently returned to 2019 levels.
With fewer movies to show, some theaters have gone out of business. The United States and Canada lost 2,220 movie screens between 2019 and 2023, according to a report by the Cinema Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade organization. (42,063 screens remain.) Cineworld, which owns the Regal chain, has been operating in bankruptcy for nearly a year.
Cineworld said on Friday that it could emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization by the end of the month. Now comes a new threat.
If union walkouts in Hollywood drag into September, theaters will also face a sparse 2024. Multiple movies scheduled for release next year had to stop shooting when actors went on strike. To make the films’ 2024 release dates, cameras need to start rolling again relatively soon.
For now, however, next year’s release calendar is more crowded than ever. Sony’s new 2024 slate includes the Marvel Comics-based “Madame Web” (February), the “Ghostbusters” sequel (March), a “Bad Boys” sequel (June), a “Venom” sequel (July), “Kraven the Hunter” (August) and “Karate Kid” (December).
“Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” the animated follow-up to “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” which collected $677 million worldwide earlier this year, was not given a new release date.