US exhibitors face challenging year
The US writers’ and actors’ strikes are over but one of the consequences of almost six months of production stoppages is a reduced supply for 2024 box office. That spells more gloom for exhibition, which has had a tough time of it since the pandemic forced so many cinemas around the world to close down for long periods. Embattled AMC continues to sound a defiant note and just raised $350m in equity through the sale of approximately 48m shares, which lowered its debt load by $62m. Cineworld, owner of Regal Cinemas in the US and Picturehouse in the UK, is in administration. Both exhibition giants are trying to turn the ship around and head into better times, while concerns remain over the viability of some smaller chains and sole operators.
Urgently needed: Inventive distribution models
Unable to complete production, start production or have stars promote their slate during the now-ended SAG-AFTRA strike, studios punted some of their 2023 releases into 2024 and pushed others further back into the leap year. There will be plenty to entertain and even though box office in 2024 is expected to drop off from the $9bn mark set in 2023, there will always be breakouts (and, yes, flops), plus there is the promise of 2025, which is shaping up to be a monster year.
It will be a good time for inventive and left-field distribution. Successful runs for titles not produced in the US or UK such as Toho’s Godzilla Minus One and Studio Ghibli’s The Boy And The Heron are inspiring case studies. And AMC impressed when it self-distributed Taylor Swift and Beyoncé concert films, so will anyone step up and do something with U2’s sell-out shows at The Sphere in Las Vegas?
Look out for these studio tentpoles
The year will get off to a slower start without an Avatar spilling into January, however there could well be plenty of life in December 2023 holdovers like Warner Bros’ The Color Purple and DC’s Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, as well as Universal/Illumination’s Migration.
Warner Bros appears to have a robust line-up for the year ahead and will be launching Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two in March and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire in April – both from Legendary – as well as likely Cannes out of competition selection Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga in May, Beetlejuice 2 with Michael Keaton in September, and October release Joker: Folie à Deux, Todd Phillips’ follow-up to his $1bn 2019 hit with Joaquin Phoenix reprising his Oscar-winning role alongside Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn.
Disney has endured a torrid year at the box office and will hope to revive superhero interest with just one Marvel Studios tentpole in the form of Ryan Reynolds starrer Deadpool 3 in July. Disney’s Pixar division has faltered in recent years but there are high hopes for Inside Out 2 in July. The studio also has Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes from 20th Century Studios in May, and will look to round out the year in style with Barry Jenkins’ The Lion King spin-off Mufasa: The Lion King.
Others to look out for include Matthew Vaughn’s spy thriller Argylle from Apple/Universal in February. Anticipated Universal heavyweights include DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4 in March, Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt as bickering exes in action comedy The Fall Guy in May, Illumination’s Despicable Me 4 in July, Jon M. Chu’s Wicked in December, when a new Jordan Peele film might also be ready.
Look out for Lionsgate’s John Wick spin-off Ballerina in June, and a tasty crop from Sony led by Spider-Man spin-off Madame Web directed by the UK’s S.J. Clarkson in February, Bad Boys 4 with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in June, Kraven The Hunter in August, and Venom 3 directed by Kelly Marcel in November. Paramount brings Gladiator 2 with Paul Mescal in November and Sonic The Hedgehog 3 the following month.
Focus Features brings comedy horror Lisa Frankenstein in February, directed by Zelda Williams; Kobi Libii’s Sundance selection and fantasy The American Society Of Magical Negroes in March; and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic Back To Black in May.
Suitors court Paramount Global
It might not happen in 2024, but Shari Redstone, whose National Amusements holds a controlling interest in Paramount Pictures parent Paramount Global, currently valued at $10bn, is sounding out potential buyers. They include David Ellison’s Skydance Media and equity film RedBird Capital and now, according to reports, Warner Bros Discovery (WBD).
Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish and WBD head David Zaslav reportedly met in New York in mid-December, and Zaslav is said to have spoken separately to Redstone. The Paramount Pictures studio, with its franchises and storied library, is the jewel in the crown and could benefit from greater exploitation. Paramount+ has been struggling, although there have been noises suggesting Bakish wants to persevere and sees value in partnering with other platforms on bundles.
Industry digests greater streamer transparency
After years of holding on to its data to maintain its first mover advantage in the streaming wars, the world’s leading platform Netflix has been patting itself on the back for its all-new transparency approach encapsulated in ‘What We Watched: A Netflix Engagement Report’. The early December data dump of hours viewed on 18,000 films and TV shows comes rather conveniently after the Hollywood unions demanded more transparency in this year’s notorious contract talks and is the first in what Netflix promises will be a biannual series.
While Netflix takes a PR victory lap, it remains a little too soon to say what the industry makes of all this. Safe to say talent agents will be knocking on the doors of Ted Sarandos and his cohorts to renegotiate contracts for stars whose shows and films score high on the list before a new season or sequel goes into production. Those whose shows have not done so well… not so much. Netflix’s deal-makers of course will be prepared for whatever comes their way because they’ve had the information for many years.
Will other streamers follow? Yes if Hollywood talent agents and producers clamour for it. However until that happens, their priority will be to ramp up and retain subscribers à la Netflix.
Bob Iger aims to put annus horribilis behind him
It’s not easy being CEO in corporate America as Disney head Bob Iger can attest after a rough 100th anniversary year which has set left 2024 strewn with obstacles. After axing 8,000 jobs and implementing a restructure, Iger will be keen to steady the ship.
He will want to restore his image as a talent-friendly Hollywood leader after he gave an interview in the summer saying writers and actors – most of whom will never come close to seeing the kind of money the top executive makes – were not being realistic in their contract demands.
On top of that the CEO will be seeking the best way to monetise the now wholly-owned Hulu platform, and hopes a pared-down release slate comprising among others one new Pixar film (Inside Out 2) and one new Marvel Studios release (Deadpool 3) will revive those brands’ prospects after a dismal 2023 at the box office. The Marvels ranks as the lowest Marvel Studios release of all time, while Elemental just about clawed its way to semi-respectability. Disney animation Wish, which came with a $200m price tag, has also flopped.
Iger faces a proxy battle for control of the board with activist investors including Nelson Peltz and his Trian Fund Management; remains in the thick of a legal spat with Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and 2024 presidential hopeful whose state houses the Walt Disney World theme park; and has managed to upset the World’s Richest Person Elon Musk after Disney pulled advertising from X (formerly Twitter) when Musk endorsed an antisemitic post on the social media platform. Iger gets a gold star for that, however shareholders will scrutinise potential lost revenues stemming from the move, plus nobody needs a seething, outspoken multi-billionaire throwing verbal daggers in their direction.