At this point, would anyone be surprised to see Elon Musk or Kanye West offer predictions for the year in Hollywood? The Writers Guild will (or won’t!) strike. Apple will (or won’t!) buy a studio. Yadda yadda… everyone’s got a take on this stuff, and most are wrong… until maybe they’re right, and then the victory lap ensues.
The bottom line: This year’s gonna be bad. The ad market hasn’t yet hit its low, inflation and interest rates have stunted dealflow, the movie business is expected to improve but there aren’t enough releases planned to match pre-pandemic box office, it’s unclear if the advertising tiers will reverse the fortunes of the streamers, and the Wall Street investors who have killed the entertainment companies’ share prices are the same people who encouraged them to go all-in on streaming in the first place. Not great!
You don’t need me to predict all that, so instead, for the second year in a row, I polled sources for more offbeat observations and areas of preoccupation in 2023 that you might not be thinking about, both big picture and small. Some of these are very specific, and some are just representative of trends that I care about heading into the year. Here’s last year’s list, so you can check me (I did OK!). And if you disagree, tell me why at email@example.com.
1. A.I. comes for actors and writers
At this point, we’re waaay past deepfakes. Dozens of well-funded startups are able to recreate professional-quality performances and even generate new ones. James Earl Jones signed over his voice to a Ukrainian cloning company, which will allow Darth Vader to live forever. And SAG-AFTRA is already insisting on language prohibiting digital reproductions without the guild’s consent. If you’re a star, or you represent one, 2023 is the year you need to figure out how to safeguard your digital rights.
This stuff is moving super-fast. Spend some time with the new ChatGPT tool and you’ll understand why the Writers Guild should be freaked out about A.I. scripts. If they don’t insert protections into the next studio contract, as one plugged-in reader emailed me recently, “when the next negotiation comes around, they won’t have a position to negotiate from. It’ll be an order of magnitude worse than the streaming transition.”
2. Can Timmy C. open a movie?
For all the hope placed on Timothée Chalamet that movies can still create movie stars, the 27-year old actor has never actually been asked to open a studio movie. Dune was sold as Dune, and his other films have been either small indies, supporting roles, or Netflix.
That changes in 2023 with Wonka (Dec. 15). Yes, it’s well-known I.P., but it’s not a remake of the 1971 and 2005 movies, the latter of which grossed $474 million worldwide as a Johnny Depp vehicle. Instead, it’s a concept-plus-star original musical prequel, and I thought the footage shown at Cinemacon wasn’t great. With Dune: Part Two set to open in November, Warner Bros. is hoping for the kind of one-two-punch effect that Tom Holland’s Uncharted got from Spider-Man: No Way Home. But Wonka will serve as a big test of Timmy’s appeal, especially to young moviegoers.
Related: Per agency sources, a few big-get roles up for grabs in 2023:
- Ridley Scott is looking for the key actors in Gladiator 2.
- If Disney figures out its Pirates of the Caribbean situation, those roles will be hot.
- Same with Paramount and the Bee Gees movie. Hustlers’ Lorene Scafaria just stepped in as director, and she’s seeking Gibb brothers that don’t play like the SNL sketch.
- Agents are salivating over Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is complicated by all the multiverse stuff. And the ongoing DC reset should bring big opportunities for new men in tights, especially someone to replace Henry Cavill as Superman.
- And, obviously, the granddaddy of casting coups: James Bond. The Aaron Taylor-Johnson rumors are true—he sat with producer Barbara Broccoli, and the meeting went well, per sources. But while Taylor-Johnson fits the bill—great actor, British, fits the younger direction the Broccolis want to go, accomplished but not particularly famous—he’s about to be a much bigger star. If Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Kraven the Hunter or Universal’s Ryan Gosling two-hander The Fall Guy works, Taylor-Johnson might end up, ironically, too famous to take on Bond.
3. Streaming’s ad push will alter talent dealmaking
This is already happening, and it makes sense. For many talent deals, the Netflix model—forever ownership, full buyout instead of backend—contemplated a closed SVOD ecosystem without advertising or re-sales. Now that’s changing, so it’s only natural that deals will shift as well. UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer basically said as much on my podcast last month. “They’ve changed the rules,” he told me. “They will have ad breaks, they’re getting additional revenue from outside the original bargain, and it’s only a matter of time before all the streamers start selling not just the shows they don’t want… but also the shows that are most successful, because there will be a revenue model that will be very successful.” That’s all code for Pay me.
4. Scrutiny on the Disney board
If anyone is to blame for the Bob vs. Bob C.E.O. circus of the past few months, it’s the Walt Disney Co. board of directors, which endorsed Bob Chapek in June (and unanimously so, though we later learned it wasn’t exactly unanimous) only to discard him and his beard in a dumpster outside the Starbucks on West Alameda five months later. Bloomberg reported the Chapek go-away money will be “at least” $23 million, but it could be much more, and we will learn that number this year. I’m guessing that chair Susan Arnold and her 12-person board, which still doesn’t include a single member with significant entertainment experience (other than Bob Iger), will come under much more scrutiny then, when investors and the media learn how much the June renewal through 2025 ended up costing the company.
5. Disney animation on the hot seat
Speaking of Disney, if Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney Animation Studios’ Jennifer Lee were in an animated movie, they’d probably be hyper-visualizing some unfamiliar feelings these days: fear and anxiety. After twin $200 million bombs in Lightyear and Strange World, I’m not quite ready to hit the panic button on Disney’s animation creative engines. But… the 2023 movies better work.
Pixar’s Elemental trailer has Inside Out vibes, and Wish, the Disney Animation movie for the holidays, is a traditional fairy tale musical, its sweet spot. But there’s a larger question of whether families actually want these movies in theaters, especially after Chapek trained everyone to expect them on streaming. The 2022 numbers are scary, and the holiday returns for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish aren’t great ($67 million domestic; $134 million worldwide)—and that movie’s actually good.
Another uncomfortable question for Disney: Why do these movies still cost so much? Most of Universal’s animated movies are half as expensive. I know, artistry. But Pixar and WDAS make their movies mostly in California, with high labor costs, while Universal’s Illumination, for example, outsources a lot of the work. It didn’t matter when Disney was a hit factory. Now?
6. Fallout from the behind-the-scenes blowup of the year
When HBO’s House of the Dragon co-showrunner and pilot director Miguel Sapochnik announced his surprise (yet totally amicable!) exit in August, he left with a very nice first-look deal for future projects. I wouldn’t bet on those happening. It was never reported, but Sapochnik bailed after a protracted standoff over his wife and her involvement in the show. Alexis Raben was a credited producer on Season 1 and had appeared in a couple episodes, but when Sapochnik requested that she be included on his and co-showrunner Ryan Condal’s producing team for Season 2, HBO politely said no, citing her inexperience, according to two sources close to the show. (HBO declined to comment.)
It was a whole blow-up, and HBO even brought in a mediator to try to de-escalate the situation. Sapochnik ultimately decided he couldn’t work on HotD after his wife was essentially told to stay home, bailing on the show and leaving millions of dollars on the table. He then fired his agents at WME and went to CAA—with his wife.
7. The NBA can’t quit Turner
Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav was negotiating in the press when he announced in November that “we don’t have to have” the NBA. But with the league reportedly seeking a combined $50 billion to $75 billion from WBD’s Turner and Disney in negotiations, Zaz knows he probably can’t compete with the streamers. I don’t think he will need to. The NBA will likely carve out a third or even fourth package of games, so commissioner Adam Silver can jump into bed with Big Tech but also keep that linear TNT audience (and Charles Barkley) in the mix, albeit in a lesser position.
8. Avatar does well enough for more Avatar
It’s funny: Nobody would be talking about Avatar: The Way of Water needing to gross $2 billion if James Cameron himself didn’t announce that the number was the threshold. It’s at $1.4 billion as of today, so the movie will officially be profitable for Disney, and it could eventually top the Cameron bar as well. (The China number, $153 million after a slow start and all the Covid fears, is especially encouraging.) That’s good enough for Disney to exhale (and all of Hollywood, really, considering that 2022 box office ended down about 35 percent from 2019). Avatar 3 is far along and was never in doubt, but the fourth and fifth movies likely weren’t gonna happen if audience demand wasn’t proven with Way of Water. Hopefully Cameron will shave an hour off the running time of the next one.
9. International re-asserts itself with the indies
I’ve been hearing from independent film people lately that the international players are back. How so? In the wake of Korea’s CJ Entertainment snapping up Endeavor Content (now Fifth Season), and France’s MediaWan buying into Brad Pitt’s Plan B, several European companies have made it known they’re interested in big-ticket film investments. Outfits like Newen, the French TV company owned by the TF1 Group, and Fremantle, are looking to buy up and aggregate production companies. So look for more deals like that in 2023, which could make up for the dip in U.S.-based deals.
10. Indiana Jones and the outsized expectations
I’m not gonna predict, sight unseen, which movies will or won’t exceed projections this year (except maybe Cocaine Bear, which will definitely gross a bazillion dollars). But I was a bit surprised to see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (June 30) on a bunch of lists as a possible top-grosser of 2023. It’s a big franchise, no doubt, and the first time the Disney machine has had a crack at an Indy movie, via Lucasfilm. But it’s James Mangold directing, not Spielberg; and Harrison Ford is now 80 and—if we’re being honest—looks it, and the marketing is off to a bit of a bumpy start.
Because the trailer debuted at Brazil Comic Con on Dec. 1, the same day as two other high profile summer trailers—Paramount’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (June 9) and Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 (May 5)—rival studios were able to compare views to gauge relative strength out of the gate. After two weeks across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, here were the numbers, per a studio source:
Transformers 7: 506 million views
Guardians of Galaxy 3: 187 million views
Indiana Jones 5: 79 million views
There’s still time, of course, and it might be that the Indy audience isn’t the most online. But the coronation seems premature.
11. Peacock’s Girls5Eva will be big on Netflix
How many times does this have to happen for NBC Universal to see its future as either a supplier to bigger streamers or a target for consolidation?
12. The Great Walkback separates the streaming players
There’s really no other way to put it: Just as the stock market has given back the huge gains of the past five years, the Hollywood economy will spend most of 2023 erasing a decade’s worth of largesse. The end of Peak TV, the Great Netflix Correction, the Pivot to Profits—whatever you want to call what’s going on now, it’s basically a giant walkback of the spending and growth ambition that accompanied the subscription video on demand revolution. Just this morning, Warner Bros. Discovery C.F.O. Gunnar Wiedenfels, Hollywood’s Villain of 2022 (as anointed here), wagged his finger again at “an industry that went overboard and went on a spending frenzy. There was a lot of thinking of, ‘let’s do more, more, more,’ not necessarily ‘let’s do the exact right things, let’s do what works.’” Got that? Just make the hits now.
But this won’t be a lock-step Hollywood recession, I don’t think. WBD is particularly challenged, of course, and Gunnar isn’t alone on an island. Disney’s new/old C.E.O. Bob Iger is expected to return from break next week wielding a sharp axe. “There is likely to be a significant focus on cost containment,” BofA analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich wrote in a research note today about Disney. NBC Universal, Paramount, and the other ad-impacted entertainment companies are all vulnerable. And even Netflix is pulling back in certain areas, and will be forced to cut more if its much-lauded advertising tier doesn’t juice revenue. (I’m skeptical.) Those Ampere numbers from last month were grim: A 24 percent year-over-year decline in adult scripted series ordered in the second half of this year. A 40 percent drop compared to 2019, and 2023 will be worse.
But… all this could be great for the so-called not-for-profit streamers, the ones that exist as ancillary to other businesses—namely, Amazon Prime Video and AppleTV+. They’ve got challenges too, evidenced by Amazon’s massive layoffs this week, but in streaming they may be handed a huge opportunity to pull away from rivals. We’re already seeing that, with Amazon and Apple landing big-ticket projects, like that Channing Tatum movie Red Shirt that, for some reason, is paying the stars/producers a combined $50 million. It used to be that Hollywood people joked that Amazon and Apple were in a different business. Now it’s literally true, and if they spend that money wisely, they could use the current industry-wide retrenchment to separate themselves for good.
13. Stranger Things and the year in TV renegotiations
It’s only the first week of January, but we might have our most interesting TV renegotiation of the year. Multiple sources tell me the sprawling cast of Stranger Things recently closed new deals to return for the show’s fifth and final season. And, as might be expected for Netflix’s most-watched show, the dealmaking was complicated and the principals got big raises.
As often happens in big TV renegotiations, the cast went in together (or almost together), and with about 20 series regulars (!), Netflix created four separate tiers with which to negotiate:
- Tier 1: Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the adult stars who have been with the show since the first season. (Ryder was the biggest name initially, and her value has carried her and Harbour through subsequent renegotiations);
- Tier 2: The four original boys—Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, and Finn Wolfhard—plus later arrival Sadie Sink, who lobbied hard and was added to this tier;
- Tier 3: The regular teens, including Natalia Dyer, Maya Hawke, Charlie Heaton, and Joe Keery;
- Tier 4: Everybody else.
There’s an intriguing backstory here. Netflix business affairs V.P. Rob Natter made an initial tier-by-tier proposal. It was big, but the negotiating teams—tons of talent lawyers were involved here, including Karl Austen, Harris Hartman, Joel McKuin, Greg Slewett, and more, with agencies in the background—argued that Netflix technically didn’t have the original stars under contract at all because deals for the show from 2015 violated California’s 7-year rule, which prohibits personal services contracts from extending beyond that 7 year benchmark. (Apparently previous renegotiations did not result in new contracts but rather addendums to the existing deals.) Netflix disputed that argument, but perhaps not coincidentally the offers increased significantly. Netflix is declining to comment, but I’m told the salary numbers for Season 5 are as follows:
- Tier 1: $9.5 million
- Tier 2: Just over $7 million
- Tier 3: Just over $6 million
- Tier 4: Much less
That’s per person for services in eight episodes. (Technically, Netflix is paying for 10 episodes, but that’s so the per-episode fee comes down to allow the company to argue in negotiations for other shows that it didn’t go above X amount per episode on Stranger Things, its biggest show. It’s also a cushion in case they go long on episodes.) And the above money also includes payments for the supersized shoots on Season 4, which ended up airing several movie-length episodes. Just for comparison, Ryder and Harbour made $350,000 per episode for Season 3, or $2.8 million.
Individually, these numbers aren’t actually that huge for stars of such a massive show in its fifth season. But if you do the math all in, with this number of actors, that’s a pretty pricey season of TV even before spending a penny on production. And that’s not including breakout star Millie Bobby Brown, who has a separate (and ridiculously lucrative) overall deal with Netflix, where she makes the Enola Holmes movies and will star in the Russo brothers’ next pricey opus, The Electric State.
Not bad for a show where the kids started at $25,000 an episode. If you’re involved in a bigger aggregate cast renegotiation this year, I’d love to hear about it.
14. The studios will redefine the “hit” movie
The movie business desperately needs to shift the narrative, so I’m betting all kinds of middling movies are about to be anointed “hits.” Call it a side effect of the new normal, or part of Hollywood’s long history of moving the goalposts to declare victories. Universal is considering releasing PVOD revenue to counter the “flop” narrative on movies that perform well at home but not in theaters. And it’s already happening with theatrical wins like The Woman King. Sony copped to a $50 million production budget, and it grossed $92 million worldwide last summer. Certainly, that’s a decent result for the kind of mid-budget star vehicle that the studios aren’t really making, but with the help of the Sony P.R. team, the media gave this thing blockbuster status. Reality check: it’ll probably barely break even in theaters after P&A. In a “normal” theatrical ecosystem, it never would have garnered much attention.
15. The Rock goes back to WWE
Whether or not Vince McMahon returns to WWE this year to oversee its eventual sale to Comcast or Endeavor or whoever, the biggest star that pro wrestling has ever produced would be wise to engineer his own homecoming. After the failure of Black Adam and questions about the XFL, Dwayne Johnson would immediately be welcomed back, just as he was during his appearance in 2017, or when he returned in 2013 after a few movie flops. WWE is said to be lobbying hard for a return at WrestleMania in L.A. in April, perhaps opposite his cousin Roman Reigns. No better way to remind people of his star power—and hype his tequila, of course.
16. “Curation” becomes the buzzword in digital
At this point we’re all so accustomed to being force-fed algorithmically optimized videos on TikTok and Instagram, we feel like there’s no other way to experience social media. One smart exec at C.E.S. told me to expect a change soon. Someone’s going to figure out how to better serve video content that we all want to watch, he posited, and it will be curated not just by what our past behavior suggests but by what we actively want now. Hope so.
17. Will young people finally care about Universal’s monsters?
I still chuckle everytime I think about that infamous “Dark Universe” photo from 2017, the one with Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, and Sofia Boutella, where Universal declared emphatically that it had found in its old monster-movie I.P. the answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was one of the boldest moments of Hollywood hubris—of declaring a franchise before, you know, the audience had—and it’s as good a marker as any of the end of the movie star era as Hollywood had known it. The whole thing was scrapped when Cruise and Boutella’s Mummy reboot flopped.
Now, with Renfield (April 14), Universal is trying again, this time turning the Dracula story into a Chris McKay-directed terrible-boss horror comedy with Nicholas Hoult and Nic Cage. Who knows if it will work (the trailer that dropped today looks promising), but if it does, Universal might finally see a path to that Monster M.C.U. that it desperately covets.
18. Netflix realizes that marketing works
On my podcast this week, Kevin Goetz, the film research guru, told me that Get Out didn’t test well pre-release. Only after Universal properly sold the concept in marketing did audiences catch on. This shouldn’t be a shock: marketing works, and Netflix has seen time after time this past year (Glass Onion, The Gray Man, Hustle, Wednesday, etc) that individualized campaigns can deliver. If this next phase of the streaming wars is about differentiation, marketing will play an outsized role.
19. Oscar ratings rise, but…
With the likelihood of a few blockbuster nominees and Top Gun: Maverick having—I can’t believe I’m writing this—a legitimate shot at best picture, viewership of the Oscars will likely rise from last year’s 16.6 million, the second-lowest of all time, right after the great train station derailment of 2021. Hopefully the Academy doesn’t take this as some kind of endorsement of the show. In fact, new C.E.O. Bill Kramer took a step back when he declared that all 23 categories will be presented live this March.
Last year’s pre-show presentation experiment didn’t work, but not because it wasn’t a good idea. Instead, it didn’t actually save any time, which was a producing failure by Will Packer. (Only his second biggest of the night, of course, after letting Will Smith stay in the room after The Slap.) The sentiment was correct: The Oscars need less of what viewers don’t care about, and more of what they do.
20. Layoffs hit the agencies
It’s only natural that an industry-wide slowdown will result in fewer talent jobs and thus fewer talent agents. Add in new leadership at WME and the fact that many of those ICM Partners people who were assimilated by the CAA Borg are on thin ice anyway, there will likely be cuts before the year is over. I’m still sticking with my prediction that Chris Silbermann, the architect of the ICM sale, will be gone from CAA by the end of 2023.
21. Murdochs must write a fat check
Are Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch really gonna let the $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit go to trial? I know Dominion has said it won’t settle, but everyone has a number (especially if it comes with a major apology), and Fox News’ position in this litigation is shaky at best.
22. New CNN finally comes into focus
It’s kinda nuts that Chris Licht has been running CNN for about 8 months now and he hasn’t really done much to the evening host lineup yet. That’s gotta change, and I’m told it’s happening very soon. Only then will we really see whether the Warner Bros. Discovery pivot to the middle delivers something more than just investor John Malone feeling good about its direction. Hopefully it will also improve morale at the network.