Independent Theaters Stay Afloat in the Wake of SAG/WGA Strikes

Independent theaters, cinemas, SAG, WGA, SAG-AFTRA, actors on strike, writers on strike, film industry, Boston, Coolidge Corner Theater, The Coolidge, Somerville Theater, Capitol Theater

The summer of 2023 was an eventful period for Hollywood. The “Barbenheimer” craze lifted the film industry out of the previous years’ COVID slump. Yet the concurrent WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) strikes dealt blows to Hollywood, the effects of which are anticipated to continue, despite the agreements reached in October and November, respectively. 

“Even after the strike ends, it will take time for business activities to normalize due to the concentration of productions and theatrical releases, so we expect this to have a negative impact on next fiscal year’s results,” Sony executives stated in their earnings announcement on Nov. 9, the morning the SAG strike was resolved. 

That morning, AMC saw a 10 percent decrease in shares, as reported by CNBC

But how does this trickle down to local, independent theaters?

With delayed premiere dates of films such as “Dune,” “Challengers” and “Poor Things,” theaters saw shifts in their release calendars. 

“We probably had at least four or five first-run features [feature films being rolled out for release] move off of our fall and winter calendar,” said Mark Anastasio, Director of Special Programming of the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. 

These changes, however, didn’t necessarily mean empty theaters. There were still a handful of films scheduled throughout the summer and fall that maintained theater-going energy amongst audiences. The immense attention of “Barbenheimer” carried theaters through the summer. Then, films such as “Stop Making Sense” and “Bottoms” sustained box office sales in September, which is an expectedly slow month for cinemas. In October and November, award-eligible films such as “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “The Holdovers” continued to draw crowds (plus, Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” — not awards-eligible, but immensely popular). 

“Generally, the schedule was still fairly normal. The only thing that really affected us was the lack of promotion for existing movies,” explained Ian Judge, creative director of film programming, event booking and theater operations at the Somerville Theater and Capitol Theater in Cambridge. 

Judge said this caused “a little bit of a dip in the box office,” but was “not the end of the world.” 

The Coolidge Corner, Capitol and Somerville theaters are all repertoire houses, meaning they screen older films in addition to new releases, and host events such as Q&As with actors, writers, directors and scholars. They were able to make up for the loss of certain first-run features by amping up these special programs.

“We kind of did more repertoire re-release sort of stuff,” explained Anastasio. “We would give a repertoire film an entire week on the calendar rather than just one evening.”

Although these series helped push theaters through schedule changes brought upon by the strike, the strikes impacted these programs in other regards.

“It affected who we could have here at the theater for special guests,” Anastasio added. “We weren’t able to have any writers or actors join us for Q&A’s.”

With the strike now over, however, the Coolidge has begun lining up speakers once again.

“We’re currently making asks to a lot of guests for the spring, so I think you’ll be seeing some exciting guest announcements coming up soon,” said Anastiasio. 

Anastasio and Judge are also in the process of curating film series and programs for 2024, anticipating a lull due to delays in production. 

The SAG strike came to a close on Nov. 9, so production for a number of films has only just resumed recently, leaving theater employees like Anastasio and Judge in the dark about what a release calendar will look like. The premiering of films at festivals, such as Sundance, allows theater operators like Anastasio to gain somewhat of an understanding of which films will be acquired and distributed, but there are still unknowns regarding a future film schedule. “It’s a question of what films will be given what release dates,” he said. 

Judge anticipated that 2024 “is going to be less full of regular movies.” And, “we’re going to see big gaps in the schedule because of production delays.”

“Right now, we’re trying to get as many live events booked as we can… We’re trying to come up with some really solid film series,” Judge said of how the theaters he works at are making preparations.  

At the Coolidge, one program Anastasio is currently curating and excited to screen is the theater’s science-fiction series, “Projections: Science Fiction from the Art House.” This has been an ongoing series from the Coolidge, but the next installment will focus on robots  ranging from “The Terminator,” to Spike Jonze’s “Her,” to last year’s “M3GAN.”

With film series such as these in the works, and the enthusiasm around movie-going they’ve consistently seen, both Anastiasio and Judge are still hopeful for the future of cinema-going, even with the obstacles COVID-19 and the strikes have put up.  

“I think movies are still a thing. People going to movies is still very much a good business,” said Judge. “It’s just on a different scale than it was four or five years ago.” 

About :

Kaitlyn Hardy is a junior at Emerson College majoring in journalism and minoring in media studies. As a staff writer for The Independent, Kaitlyn is excited to extend her love for film into journalism and learn more about the movie industry. She is a lover of memoirs, live music, and obsessively rewatching movies (she’s seen Dog Day Afternoon 13 times).