Film and television production came to a crippling halt this summer as 12,000 writers and 60,000 actors walked off the job together for the first time in more than six decades. With free time on their hands, late-night hosts started a podcast to raise money for striking workers; publicity campaigns were largely abandoned and celebrated industry figures carried placards and chanted for better wages, protections from AI, and a new approach to streaming. The longest for film and TV actors and the second longest for writers, the strikes were resolved in the fall, (SAG-AFTRA members have until 12/5 to ratify their contract) but not before the economy suffered an estimated $5 billion in losses.
While it dominated the entertainment news, the dual strikes were not the only big entertainment story of the year. The cultural impact of two blockbusters, Taylor Swift’s concert film, and the durability of horror movies were other highlights. As the industry looks to right itself in 2024, NYU News sat down with Tisch School of the Arts professor Joe Pichirallo, a producer and former studio executive, to discuss the biggest stories of 2023.
Barbenheimer was both a cultural phenomenon and financial boon for Hollywood. Memes and jokes combining Barbie and Oppenheimer dominated late night TV and the Internet, while the inherently commercial fantasy from director Greta Gerwig and the serious biopic from director Christopher Nolan dominated the box office. The two movies opened simultaneously in July and have grossed over $2 billion combined worldwide. “Those two very different stories became must-see events,” Pichirallo said. “We haven’t seen that level of success at the box office since the pandemic. The overall theatrical box office still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, but these movies showed audiences are willing to come out.”
Taylor Swift is a film star, too. The pop musician’s conquest of the entertainment world continued with a cinematic version of her current world tour, which immediately became the highest grossing concert film of all time. Though notable on its own, that success is even more remarkable because Swift bypassed traditional distribution channels and worked directly with the theater chain AMC. “Taylor Swift is a unique phenomenon, she has the must-see factor,” Pichirallo said. “What will be interesting to see is what happens with Beyonce, who has a concert film, Renaissance: A Film by Beyonce, coming out December 1. As Swift did, Beyonce is also bypassing traditional theatrical distributors and having AMC release her film.
Although Beyonce’s movie isn’t expected to reach Swift’s box office numbers, it will provide further clues on whether releasing directly through theater chains is a viable new distribution model for concert films.”
With Five Nights at Freddy’s closing in on $300 million at the global box office, the video game-turned-movie hit spotlights the financial power of fear. Horror movies in general, especially those produced by Jason Blum (the horror brand behind M3GAN and Paranormal Activity), represent one of the industry’s most reliable bets. Fans of the genre tend to be young and watch in groups, which leads them to prefer theaters over viewing at home. Horror movies can be made inexpensively because they don’t require highly paid stars or expensive special effects. “It’s really just: ‘Is the idea scary enough?’” Pichirallo said.
Streaming was a major factor in the strikes and it will continue to disrupt the TV and film industry. Pichirallo explained that the old models of distribution offered multiple revenue streams, with a feature film going from theaters to DVD, then on-demand and premium cable, then cable TV. But when a producer sells an original movie or series to Netflix or Amazon Prime or another streaming service, it’s one and done, Pichirallo said. In addition, the streaming platforms led the way in ordering fewer episodes for individual shows, which meant less work for writers. So while the strikes resulted in increased pay for writers, it is an open question as to whether the new WGA contract will result in substantially more work for writers.
Technology is playing a bigger role than ever. The writers’ and actors’ unions gained ground on the use of AI in scripts and production by getting the studios and streaming companies to agree to restrictions on how artificial intelligence is used in the creative process to prevent it from replacing actors and writers. Meanwhile, virtual production technology (as seen in The Mandalorian, House of the Dragon, and Barbie, among many others) is enhancing filmmaking by employing computers and game engines that allow filmmakers to combine live action with computer-generated imagery. These new techniques provide visuals of special effects in real time, which will reduce post-production fixes. These high-tech soundstages have the potential for creating a more sustainable industry by cutting travel and trash from location shooting.