When selling a movie about raunchy talking dogs, it helps to have some star power to get moviegoers into seats.
And “Strays,” which opened Friday, has it — at least on the screen. Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Randall Park and Isla Fisher are among those who contribute their comic voice talents. Normally, a cast like this would translate into countless promotional appearances in settings like “Saturday Night Live” late-night talk shows and on social media platforms. Not during the actors’ strike, when such efforts by the actors are forbidden.
Instead, the most exciting thing to happen during the press tour for the film may have been during a rehearsal for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show when Dylan Dreyer, a meteorologist, took a tumble while practicing a trick with an Australian Shepherd.
“Strays,” which had a budget of $46 million, is one of four movies that opened widely across the country this weekend. It grossed an estimated $8.3 million for a fifth place showing, a poor opening and not close to the number Universal Pictures was hoping for when it greenlit the film. (The studio’s previous R-rated comedy that paired raunchy material with family-friendly characters, “Good Boys,” opened in 2019 to $21 million. “Cocaine Bear,” also from Universal, had a far more robust opening, $23 million, back in February.)
The winner of the weekend, the Warner Bros. DC film “Blue Beetle,” earned $25.4 million, an average showing for a lesser-known, comic book movie. The film, heavy on special effects, cost over $100 million to make and market.
“I wish ‘Blue Beetle’ would have been higher,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. “I think that we clearly were disadvantaged by not being able to bring the movie to Comic Con and not being able to bring out our ‘Cobra Kai’ star, Xolo Mariduena, as his fans know him, to the world. So that was tough.”
Both films are the latest examples of opening weekends hurt because their movie stars are unable to promote their latest work. The early summer successes of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” can’t hide the larger reality that red carpets are lacking the pop and sizzle of the cameras and box office receipts are depressed.
“So far, ‘Barbie,’ ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Talk to Me,’ ‘Ninja Turtles,’ and ‘The Meg 2’ got by untouched,” the box office analyst David A. Gross said. “But we’re coming up on some titles that will be impacted.”
He pointed to, among others, “Strays”; “Golda,” which stars Helen Mirren as the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir; a new “Equalizer” film featuring Denzel Washington that will open on Labor Day weekend; and the latest in the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” series.
The lack of celebrity promotion, Mr. Gross said, is likely to cost the films anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of their box office revenue. Studio executives have grumbled that some films could have made $5 million to $10 million more on opening weekend if their stars had been able to promote them. For original films not based on well-known intellectual property, the hit might be even more severe.
Asked on Sunday morning about the poor opening for “Strays,” Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution, acknowledged, “I was hoping for more.” But he said he remained optimistic that the R-rated comedy would attract more moviegoers in the weeks to come. “We will see how the rest of the summer and September treats us.”
In the absence of actors, studio marketing teams are relying heavily on directors to promote the films, and they are spending more on advertising.
Angel Manuel Soto, the director of “Blue Beetle,” has been an especially crucial part of the Warner Bros. marketing campaign. He traveled to England, Mexico and around the United States, including Puerto Rico, to host screenings and conduct an estimated 100 interviews with print, broadcast and radio outlets. The studio recently posted a video of Mr. Soto revealing to Mr. Mariduena that he was the choice to play the lead role. It was a moment that in normal times would have been a moving anecdote during a late-night interview but was instead boosted with advertising and aimed toward building interest in the film among Latinos.
On the eve of the actors’ strike, Mr. Mariduena posted a video to his 3.3 million followers on Instagram, urging them to come out to the film. “I won’t be able to promote this movie, but you can,” he said. “Let’s do this for the culture, let’s do this for the community, let’s do this for the opportunity for others.”
The movie industry was dealing with major issues long before the strike. Moviegoing, even factoring in the Barbenheimer phenomenon, is down 14 percent from 2019, before the pandemic, according to analysts. Certain genres, like R-rated comedies, have been hit especially hard. The summer’s biggest original comedy was Jennifer Lawrence’s “No Hard Feelings,” which made $50 million at the North American box office.
Given that the aftereffects of the pandemic are lingering and the strikes are continuing, it’s likely that the situation at the box office is only going to get more unpredictable.
“Moviegoing used to be a habit for people,” Michael Moses, the chief marketing officer for Universal, said. “Our job as marketing was to get them to pick our movie over the others. Now our job is to get them to go to the movies and then choose our movie over the others.”