Box Office ‘Mayhem’: Starless Publicity Campaigns Start to Impact Grosses

Box Office ‘Mayhem’: Starless Publicity Campaigns Start to Impact Grosses

The scene on the Paramount lot on a warm Saturday afternoon late in July was unusual — to say the least — as the studio threw what was essentially a premiere for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem without the film’s star-studded voice cast. Instead, director Jeff Rowe had to man the green carpet on his own at what was billed as a special family screening.

Across Hollywood, marketers are having to scrap media tours amid the dual Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes, with guilds forbidding their members from promoting any movie from a struck company.

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Now, the box office is feeling the impact as films open without the full participation of stars and writers. Several studio sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that a movie’s earnings at the box office could be hurt by as much as 15 percent because of the dramatic falloff in talent-driven publicity.

Turtles’ voice cast alone includes Ayo Edebiri, Maya Rudolph, Seth Rogen, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou, Giancarlo Esposito, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Paul Rudd and Post Malone.

The new TMNT faced a double whammy, since Rogen is also one of the film’s writers and has been unable to bank any press since the writers strike commenced more than 100 days ago. “It was bizarre,” says one source close to the movie of the July 29 screening. “Can you imagine what the group photo (of stars) would have been like on the carpet?”

Turtles, which debuted Aug. 2, a Wednesday, posted a respectable five-day domestic opening of $43.1 million. In terms of sheer dollars, Insiders believe the movie will take a hit of $7 million to $10 million because of the publicity restrictions.

Universal’s R-rated comedy Strays, about a pack of raunchy dogs, and DC’s Blue Beetle both open during the Aug. 18-20 weekend and will be observed closely to see how they perform. Strays’ high-wattage voice cast includes Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Will Forte, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Josh Gad and Sofía Vergara.

A top marketing executive at another studio notes that no amount of paid advertising can make up for the kind of awareness a star can ignite if a personal social media post, interview or other promotional bit, goes viral. “Not having stars to do publicity for your movies is a huge detriment to the overall campaign,” says the exec. “You lose the cultural impact of having talent talk about the film. Some movies wouldn’t have worked anyway, but they had more of a shot.”

There are dozens of films set to open between now and the end of the year. Some studios have already made changes to their release calendars because of the publicity deficit, such as Sony, which delayed the early August release of Gran Turismo, whose cast includes Orlando Bloom and David Harbour, in order to build buzz by first holding sneaks over two weekends.

On the awards front, MGM pushed back the September release of Luca Guadagnino’s awards hopeful Challengers, starring Zendaya, to 2024 (the sports drama had been slotted to open the Venice Film Festival, but pulled out).

Zendaya — who has a huge reach on social media — also stars in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming event pic Dune: Part 2, which, as of now, is still set to open Nov. 3 in North America timed to its global rollout. But that could easily change since Legendary is said to be insistent on a full press tour by the cast, which also includes Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler.

Legendary and studio partner Warner Bros. will need to make a decision soon regarding Dune 2, since the marketing and publicity campaign needs to ramp up in earnest by early September.

Like Zendaya had been, Chalamet is on double duty this year. In addition to Dune 2, he plays the lead in Warner Bros.’ Christmas tentpole Wonka. Insiders say Warners and other studios are loathe to push back movies wholesale considering theatrical is still in the midst of recovering from the pandemic, which leveled the box office. At the same time, there is no denying the risk of staying the course if the strikes aren’t resolved. (Barbie and Oppenheimer, which have been a boon for moviegoing, were all but done with their publicity campaigns before SAG-AFTRA went on strike.)

“The inability of stars to actively participate in the promotion of their films has definitely set the industry on edge,” says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. “While the box office impact is difficult to quantify with mathematical certainty, there is no question that this time-honored tradition has value.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe