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Will A Prolonged Writers’ Strike Be A Boon To The Struggling Indie Acquisitions Market?

May 4, 2023

The Writers’ Strike has arrived, and Hollywood is breaking out into a flop sweat about what could happen if it’s a prolonged détente. The last work stoppage in 2007-2008 lasted 14 weeks and severely disrupted the filming of countless episodic television series, kiboshed a handful of movies while others were rushed into production with barely coherent scripts (“Quantum of Solace” being the classic example), and saw the Golden Globes canceled (okay, maybe it wasn’t all bad).
READ MORE: WGA Goes On Strike: What It Means For Hollywood
Theatrical Is Back, Baby!Fifteen years later, this strike is occurring within an entirely different context. Not only is the industry just beginning to economically recover from the blow of the pandemic, but more crucially, streaming has exploded, and as a result, it has become one of the key compensation issues at play. Ironically, this is happening as studios have returned from CinemaCon, where they crowed about the value of the theatrical business, a signal that no one (aside from maybe Netflix) has figured out what a successful, standalone streaming model looks like, even as much as it has become a pillar of the industry’s revenue stream.  
“We believe in full windowing of the motion pictures. We do not want to do direct-to-streaming movies. We’re in no rush to bring the movie to Max,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav pronounced, adding, “When you open a movie in theaters, it has a whole stream of monetization. More importantly, it’s marketed. It builds a brand so when it does go to a streaming service; there’s a view that [the title] has a higher quality that benefits the streaming service.”  
Meanwhile, Sony — the only major studio without a streaming service — was more far more candid. “For the past three years, as the punditocracy pissed on your business, we at Sony held fast. We were the only major studio devoted entirely to theatrical,” CEO Tom Rothman told theater owners. “We were sure in the conviction that movies in movie theaters couldn’t just survive, but triumph.”
So, hooray, Hollywood is back on the side of movies in cinemas again! The thing is, those pesky writers are responsible for creating the scripts that get those films made. And without them, the consequences could be deeply felt.
The worst-case scenario that few are talking about just yet is that if this work stoppage is prolonged, many films that are in pre-production to shoot later this year or in early 2024 may shut down altogether. Theatrical release calendars may have to be adjusted, with some movies planned for release in Q4 pushed to next year, leaving both studios and streamers alike scrambling to fill gaps in their calendars. However, Hollywood’s worry may turn into a boon for indie sales agents who’ve been struggling in a market that has gone icy cold. Could the strike herald a mini-gold rush on the acquisitions front?
Acquisitions Are Back…Maybe?To put it bluntly — the days of streamers and studios rolling into Sundance with barrels of money to spread around appears to be over. While Oscar-winner “Coda” was sold to Apple for an insane $25 million in 2021 (a Sundance record), that was really the outlier exception that year, with few major sales beyond that one. This fact was made quite clear to “Emily The Criminal” star/producer Aubrey Plaza and director John Patton Ford when they premiered and shopped their buzzy, well-reviewed pic in Park City in 2022 (The Sundance box office hit an all-time low of $15 million in 2021 which likely didn’t help).
“We didn’t have a big streamer come and try and swoop the movie away. I was shocked by that. I was like, ‘This is weird.’ You can’t do better than this movie, and we’re still not getting Amazon, Apple… they’re not knocking down the door,” Plaza told Kim Masters on The Business podcast.
The same situation played out this year, as many took notice of just how few deals were happening on the slopes and in the chalets of Park City. While there were a couple of splashy buys — $20 million dollar hauls by Netflix and AppleTV+ for “Fair Play” and “Flora & Son,” respectively — it’s a bit shocking how many high-profile movies didn’t get scooped until well after the festival.
“Eileen” (Neon) starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway; “Magazine Dreams” (Searchlight) starring Jonathan Majors; and U.S. Dramatic and World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award winners “The Persian Version” and “Shayda” (both going to Sony Pictures Classics) are among the titles that had to wait until the lights in Utah dimmed before finding a home.
The situation appears to be even more dire when you take a look at the dealmaking that didn’t happen at SXSW. Many films that rolled into Austin as hot acquisition options have still gone unclaimed. And we’re talking movies with actual star power involved such as “Americana” with Sydney Sweeney, “I Used To Be Funny” starring Rachel Sennott, “Late Bloomers” toplined by Karen Gillan, the Jake Johnson starring and directed “Self Reliance,” and “You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder” with Ewan McGregor.  
Delays, Regrets, and OpportunitiesFor the moment, no one seems to be making a move, but you can bet accountants are running the numbers, and executives are whiteboarding all kinds of scenarios. But there’s the question if there’s even money to be spent in an industry already in the midst of massive layoffs and belt-tightening.
Executives at streaming services are now under greater scrutiny for their budgets and television development slates. “People are just desperate,” David H. Steinberg, a writer and showrunner, told Vanity Fair. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I’ve never been in a situation where people are like, ‘Oh, no one’s buying anything right now.’ We just can’t sell.”
However, the flip side to that equation in the midst of a long work stoppage, when Hollywood will be starved for programming, is that perhaps the cost of acquiring one film for the price (or likely less) than the budget for a single episode of a high profile/high concept TV show, will suddenly look more interesting?
Studios and streamers may be facing the consequences — unintended or not — of past decisions much more quickly than they anticipated. AppleTV+ is currently struggling through the troubled production of the second season of their hit series “Severance,” which is going to be significantly delayed. And this is on top of their other series that may have to halt. Of all the streamers, AppleTV+ still has the slimmest catalog, so will they be looking at films to fill the gap? 
Meanwhile, for all of Warners’ David Zaslav’s newfound commitment to theatrical, you have to wonder if he’s quietly kicking himself for mothballing “Batgirl” and “Scooby-Doo! Holiday Hunt” last year when he figured they were better served as tax write-offs than, uh, movies. If the strike goes long, those could’ve been two titles that would easily slot into a rearranged calendar. (There’s also no word about what’s going on with Warners’ “Salem’s Lot,” which debuted a trailer last year at CinemaCon, but has since seen two scheduled release dates roll by with nothing to show for it).
Perhaps best positioned to ride out a few months of production stoppage are Netflix and Amazon, who likely have plenty of content backlogged, but even they will need to feed the stream if their hit shows or planned movies start getting delayed by months or canceled altogether.
If there’s anything certain about the writers’ strike and how the industry will ride it out, it’s how unpredictable it will be. Maybe I will have written 1000 words for naught if a deal is quickly reached, but no matter what happens in the days and weeks ahead, hopefully, this serves as a reminder that there are plenty of movies out there just waiting to find a home, strike or not.
Lastly, as writers ourselves, solidarity with the WGA.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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