The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO, if you please) kicked off its 7th annual convention of cinema owners today at the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Members of the trade association control over 32,000 cinema screens in all 50 states and 81 countries overseas, and more than 5,000 of them are in attendance. Formerly known as ShoWest, the current iteration is no longer a profit-driven event with corporate sponsors, with the exception of Coca-Cola.
It’s a busy four-day event. Delegates attend seminars led by industry leaders. Hollywood studios present teaser reels of their upcoming films, a few of them are screened, and stars are always on hand to promote their movies. A trade show is held on three floors of the hotel showcasing the latest projection devices, sound equipment, theater seating, movie concessions, flooring, lighting, ticketing systems, cleaning systems, etc.. On the final night awards are presented to Hollywood stars in appreciation of their ticket-selling powers.
Las Vegas casino hotels are massive, and Caesar’s is among the biggest. This time I picked the short straw and was relegated to a room in one of the furthest wings of the hotel which, I swear to God, is bigger than Burbank airport. So I ditched the heels, put on the sneakers with orthopedic insoles, and trudged to the hospitality center half a mile away to get my credentials. Armed with my “passport,” I decided to attend the seminar with the snappy title “Nine Seconds or Less: Gen Z & the Engagement Economy.” (They may attempt the snappy, but won’t ditch the jargon.) The speaker bemoaned the fact that everything he laboriously learned about millennials is out the door with Gen Z, even though he looked like a millennial himself in jeans and too-long hair among the suited crowd.
Next up was a seminar on “The Innovation Advantage”, where the audience was invited to remember that people come to the cinema for escape and, to keep them coming, cinemas had to stay relevant, engaging with the local community in various ways. The bottom line was ‘don’t innovate, solve problems,’ ‘don’t invest in one-off ideas but in systems of ideas’ and ‘work from the future backwards.’ I looked for a jargon-understanding/biz-speak seminar but couldn’t find one. At least he didn’t say ‘ideation.’
At the evening’s Gala Opening Night Studio Event, Sony went first. But before that, however, you had to sit through a mini-reel - directed squarely at the exhibitors- of directors talking about their big screen experiences. James Mangold, Patty Jenkins, F. Gary Gray, Bill Condon and Ava DuvVernay talked about the feelings evoked when they experienced a movie with an audience. Then came the inevitable thank yous, and the sponsor speech by Dolby accompanied by a commercial.
Finally, the main event. Baby Driver had an extended car chase scene and director Edgar Wright and stars Jon Hamm and Ansel Elgort appeared to present it. Next up was Stephen King’s The Dark Tower with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, neither of whom were there. Animated movies Smurfs, The Emoji Movie and the faith-based The Star were showcased, along with the animation/live action Peter Rabbit voiced by James Corden.
Sony chairman Tom Rothman introduced Blade Runner 2049 - which expands the mythology as it continues the story of Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie - by saying “Netflix, my ass” in a swipe at the streaming service that doesn’t have theatrical distribution. As he heaped praise on director Denis Villeneuve and star Ryan Gosling the latter came out to sustained applause which turned into groans when he said the original was released when he was two. 2049 looked very promising to a die-hard Blade Runner fan, but then so did exec-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings when I saw the footage. So let’s reserve judgment.
In a really weird moment, when Rothman introduced Spiderman Homecoming, he brought out the director Jon Watts, star Tom Holland, and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, the woman whose job he took. Everyone spoke but her.
Footage of the Bridesmaids wannabe Rough Night with Scarlet Johannson, the untitled Denzel Washington/Colin Farrell, and the untitled Ellen Page flashed by. They wrapped up with Dwayne Johnson introducing footage from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Sony’s Christmas film, along with stars Nick Jonas, Karen Gillen and Jack Black. Black burst into a made-up song, then told the delegates they had it much rougher than Leonardo di Caprio in The Revenant because they were in Hawaii and had to deal with centipedes. Kevin Hart appeared on video and was muted by Johnson as they exchanged raised middle fingers. The crowd, packed into the enormous Coliseum, roared.
The Omnia nightclub held the Spiderman-themed after-party where attendees had to enter through strings of spider webs and could pose with a Spiderman actor. An appropriate ending to a packed first day – with an open bar and a buffet dinner.