Theodore Brita

Much of the moviegoing world was highly fixated on the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon this summer. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” two vastly different but equally intriguing films, were both released in theaters on July 21 to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Although there were other post-COVID-19 watershed moments in the return of the blockbuster, such as the commercial successes of “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar,” the incredible cultural phenomenon generated by “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” felt different. The hype was simply unavoidable. General audiences responded positively in massive numbers to two films that featured strong directing, original ideas and excellent acting. “Barbie” grossed over a billion dollars globally, while “Oppenheimer” may reach that number soon. Audiences’ desire for original and thought-provoking cinema extended beyond these two films, as even Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” had a relatively successful box office run.

However, the success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” has become even more impressive in the context of the ongoing Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes, which forced the cast of “Oppenheimer” to walk out of the film’s United Kingdom premiere. Due to union rules, actors were prohibited from promoting their films while the strikes were in effect. The SAG-AFTRA and WGA unions represent actors and writers. Since the onset of the strikes, studios and streaming services have failed to provide writers and actors with a fair deal and pushed back release dates on numerous films, such as “Poor Things” and “Dune: Part Two.” Audiences have clearly indicated that there is a widespread demand for thought-provoking and interesting filmmaking. But instead of satisfying this demand, studios and their executives have intentionally prolonged the strike and robbed audiences of earlier release dates for widely anticipated films. Studios have continually shown themselves to be out of touch with audiences this year. This trend, if it continues, is bad news for moviegoers.

As thought-provoking and original cinema has seen an increase in popularity in 2023, the oft-repetitive superhero film has witnessed a downturn in fortunes as general audiences have seemingly tired of the superhero genre. The first film in phase five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” — cost Disney close to $200 million to film and produce. While the film was by no means a box-office bomb, it failed to reach the lofty profits achieved by other films in the MCU. “Blue Beetle,” a new comic movie set in the DC universe, cost about $208 million to make and made $26 million during its opening weekend. Although it is still in theaters, it is on track to be a massive financial loss for DC. But the nadir of superhero movies perhaps arrived in the form of “The Flash,” which was a historically bad box office bomb that is projected to lose over $200 million dollars. “The Flash” also featured a tasteless cameo by Christopher Reeve’s Superman, who struggled to move past the role of Superman while he was still alive and even briefly contemplated thoughts of suicide after departing from the role. Featuring a lifeless CGI rendition of Reeve dishonors his legacy and invalidates his desire to move past the role of Superman. There were clear indicators that these movies were not likely to be as popular as studios expected them to be, but they still poured massive production and promotional budgets into them.

Meanwhile, prolonging the writers and actors strikes is most likely also resulting in studios losing more money. The stars of films cannot promote their films, which means audiences are less aware of release dates than they normally would be. Studios will continue to lose money until the strike is resolved. But instead of providing a fair deal for writers and actors, studios seem perfectly willing to lose more money while releasing movies that the general public does not have much of an appetite for anymore. Instead of pushing back “Dune: Part Two,” Warner Brothers could have delayed “Blue Beetle” and likely avoided the financial loss that came with it while allowing for the release of a highly anticipated sequel. Studios instead, to their own disadvantage, seem content to stave off the efforts of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA to earn a fair deal.

Whether through the success of big blockbuster films such as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” or smaller-budget indie cinema like “Asteroid City” and “Beau Is Afraid,” general audiences have clearly indicated there is still a strong desire for films that are more than just “content.” Meanwhile, certain genres of films that would more likely fall under the umbrella of “content” have seen their fortunes worsen this year. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked his thoughts on the direction the film industry has taken after the pandemic, acclaimed director Richard Linklater said, “Can’t we just go back to being a little better?” Moviegoers in 2023 seem to agree with him. Hollywood studios seemingly do not.

Theodore Brita is a senior majoring in political science.