Not this again. After the two years of havoc that COVID inflicted on their business, movie theater owners thought they were past the days of blank marquees. Studios, miraculously, have been releasing films at a regular rate. And better yet, people are showing up to see them. Not to mention “Barbenheimer” — the glorious, explosive, ecstatically meme-able phenomenon of “Barbenheimer”!

But then — what is the opposite of a deus ex machina? — came a pair of labor strikes that brought Hollywood to a standstill and now threaten to upend the release calendar in the back half of 2023. For cinema operators, it’s bringing back a dreaded sense of pandemic-era PTSD, reviving memories of the long gaps in between new movies that kept people at home (and away from concession stands).

“We are enjoying this party and don’t know what comes next,” says Joe Masher, chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas, referring to the sustained hype of “Barbenheimer.” “If the strike drags on, we are seriously concerned. We just got through the pandemic.”

So far, Sony has made the boldest changes, shifting the sports drama “Gran Turismo” back two weeks to Aug. 25, pushing its sequel “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” from Christmas to spring 2024, and taking “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” once set for March, off the calendar. Elsewhere, the Yorgos Lanthimos drama “Poor Things,” from Disney and Searchlight, has relocated from September to early December, and Amazon’s sports romance “Challengers,” with Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, got booted into next year.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is considering pushing Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi sequel “Dune: Part Two” from November to 2024, and assessing new dates for holiday releases, the musical adaptation “The Color Purple” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.”

But these conversations are taking place at every studio as executives contemplate what to do now that stars can’t promote splashy, expensive tentpoles like Martin Scorsese’s crime epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Oct. 6), superhero sequel “The Marvels” (Nov. 10) and “Hunger Games” prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (Nov. 17). The work stoppage also means that several major titles set for 2024 and beyond could miss their release dates.

Chris Randleman, chief revenue officer of the Texas-based Flix Brewhouse chain, doesn’t mince words as he lays out the potential impact for exhibitors.

“The studios would be making a grave mistake moving major parts of their slate out of 2023, and it would be a severe blow to theaters right as we are getting back on our feet,” he says. “The industry can’t take another round of massive date shifts. It will hurt everyone.”

The problem is that big theater chains like AMC and Regal are carrying a lot of debt on their books, while independent operators haven’t enjoyed the same ticket sales they did before the pandemic. Overall, the domestic box office is down nearly 20% from pre-COVID levels. It’s left exhibitors vulnerable to any downturn in the movie business. If they go months without compelling films to screen, they could go bankrupt or close. In that case, Warner Bros. will have fewer screens to showcase the next “Dune” when the studio is ready to roll out the sci-fi epic.

It’s a precarious situation without an easy solution. Open a $200 million-budgeted film that hasn’t benefited from a serious promotional campaign with, say, Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet enchanting fans on red carpets or transfixing the masses on late-night talk shows, and you could fail to capture audiences’ attention.

Stars also can’t attend the fall film festivals in Venice, Toronto and Telluride, which are crucial locales to launch awards season cam- paigns. Almost a year ago, Brendan Fraser began his charm-offensive tour in the Floating City on the way to landing an acting Oscar for “The Whale,” and Sarah Polley’s drama “Women Talking” captivated the canyons of Colorado before cinching the Academy Award for adapted screenplay.

It’s impossible to know the impact a press tour (or lack thereof) actually has on a film’s box office. Would “The Flash,” a comic book adaptation from Warner Bros. and DC, have sold more tickets in June had Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck been able to make the rounds on “The Tonight Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” both of which had gone dark because of the writers strike? And the realm of promotion has only gotten smaller since the actors joined the writers on the picket lines.

“I don’t think it’s helpful that late-night talk shows can’t air,” says Greg Marcus, CEO of Marcus Theatres. “It’s hard to promote without them.”

Marcus, who operates the fourth-biggest chain in the country, is quick to put the situation in perspective. It’s not ideal, he says, but exhibitors have survived a sparse release calendar before. (Private theater rentals, anyone?) And all those movie fans who showed up for “Barbenheimer” were treated not only to the latest masterworks of Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, but also dozens of trailers for upcoming films. It’s one of the most effective ways for cinemas to spread the word.

“Is this a great thing? No,” Marcus says. “But it’s not comparable to the pandemic. When the actors are on strike, people aren’t stuck at home in lockdown.”

That’s not to say he isn’t concerned. “I would like it to be solved as quickly as possible,” he adds. “We’re a business on the mend.”

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