Studios Unveil Slates, Battle Streaming at CinemaCon

by Brent Simon April 7, 2019
Studios' presentations at CinemaCon 2019

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CinemaCon, held annually at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a gathering of theater owners and exhibitors (as well as the concessionaires and technology companies whose products undergird their business) from all across the United States and around the world. And so each spring Hollywood movie studios and top film talent alight upon the convention, to talk up their upcoming film slates and get exhibitors excited about their cinematic offerings.

This year, trailers, scenes or snippets of footage from more than 90 upcoming movies were shown, including full screenings of Wild Rose, Blinded By the Light, Late Night and Long Shot. The look and feel of CinemaCon 2019 were different, however. A big part of this had to do with Disney’s recently finalized acquisition of 20th Century Fox, but Sony also made a decision to sit this year out — ostensibly opting to more selectively release looks at its films like Men in Black International, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Zombieland 2 and Charlie’s Angels, rather than all at once.

Following a day full of panels spotlighting international exhibition, technological advances, and various innovations in the consumer theatrical experience, the Hollywood distribution portion of CinemaCon 2019 kicked off on Tuesday, April 2, with a morning presentation from STX Entertainment which previewed material from eight of their releases, built around a philosophy of mid-budget genre offerings that tend to offer their stars a favorable level of creative control.

Diane Keaton appeared in support of Poms, about a woman who moves into a retirement community and decides to open a cheerleading squad, while Katie Holmes showed up to tout a sequel to 2016’s $65 million-grossing horror hit The Boy, and Dave Bautista pitched the action-comedy My Spy. Chadwick Boseman debuted the trailer for 21 Bridges, an action/crime thriller executive produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, and talked about how getting a chance to be involved as a producer was one of only a few elements that attracted him to the project. “When I read the script, I could tell it would be a ride for viewers,” Boseman said. “But it also took me back to my theater days, with all that rich language and fast dialogue, in the style of David Mamet.”

CinemCon 2019 moments

Scenes from CinemaCon: Helen Mirren makes a statement; Paramount's Jim Gianopulos presents Rocket Man; Dwayne Johnson introduces Universal's Hobbs & Shaw; Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone show up dressed for a different kind of convention.

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Charlie Hunnam and Henry Golding showed up to promote their collaboration with Guy Ritchie, the English-set crime movie The Gentlemen, co-starring Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, and Colin Farrell. Following a well-received debut trailer with all sorts of stylishly lensed violence and cursing, the pair talked about how they clinched their roles. For Hunnam it was a three-hour meeting over tea with Ritchie; for Golding, it was quicker and with a different beverage, in a one-hour sit-down with whiskey. STX closed its presentation with a showcase of an animated property on which it has bet big: Ugly Dolls. If Kelly Clarkson’s live performance of the anthemic, uplifting song “Broken & Beautiful” is any indication, the franchise’s hopes seem solid.

Newly named Warner Bros. Chairman Toby Emmerich kicked off his studio’s Tuesday afternoon presentation by celebrating its record-setting 2018 slate — which saw $5.6 billion in worldwide box office, and 10 different movies cross the $100 million domestic mark — and extolling the theatrical movie-going experience over the continued encroach of streaming. “A lot more people enjoyed their first kiss in a movie theater,” Emmerich told the assembled exhibitors, “ than in their parents’ living room.”

Introducing a first look at his movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips kicked off Warner Bros.’ 22-film slate  presentation by waxing rhapsodic about the three months he lived onsite at the Caesars Palace while shooting The Hangover (“Stay away from room number 3952,” he joked), before sharing a trailer which seems to definitely promise a singular take on this iconic character. Warner Bros. would close its presentation with a look at It: Chapter Two. Director Andy Muschietti came out onstage carrying a massive number of red balloons, and was eventually joined by his movie’s cast — both the kids from 2017’s box office hit, and the actors playing the adult versions of their characters, including Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader. Muschietti replayed his promise from 2017’s CinemaCon, advising that audiences were “going to need plenty of adult diapers” while viewing the movie, before sharing an effectively squirm-inducing scene.

In between the films above, several other movies also spotlighted Warner Bros.’ commitment to being a cross-genre player (Detective Pikachu; an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, starring Ansel Elgort; and Super Intelligence, for which Melissa McCarthy made a wild, costumed entrance), as well as making original, adult-oriented dramas — two things not necessarily true of some of its American studio competitors. A trailer for multi-hyphenate Edward Norton’s period piece detective drama Motherless Brooklyn gave off satisfying film noir vibes. The trailer for The Kitchen, meanwhile, a crime drama starring McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, played well to the audience, even if the material itself feels a bit familiar arriving so closely on the heels of last year’s Widows. The tastiest looking of this type of movie, however, had to be the trailer for The Good Liar, a thriller introduced with cheeky aplomb by director Bill Condon and star Helen Mirren. (Co-star Ian McKellen was unable to appear, alas.)

Universal’s presentation on Wednesday morning offered up a mixture of cuteness (the aforementioned Haddish and Kevin Hart brought a Shih Tzu and a fluffy but amusingly restless rabbit onstage to tout The Secret Life of Pets 2), mannered class (a first look at Downton Abbey), and brawn (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham talked up their Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw). Octavia Spencer said that Ma showcases the lingering effects of bullying, but the horror-thriller’s trailer seemed to indicate that it will mainly have teenagers seriously reconsidering whom they ask to purchase beer for them. Closing the morning session were eight minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from Cats, heavy on performance capture and cast and crew interviews, followed by a performance of “Memory” by Jennifer Hudson.

Paramount also rolled deep at CinemaCon 2019, with footage from 20 movies, including (Cannes bound) musical biopic Rocket Man and the introduction of what the studio no doubt hopes will become franchises in the form of Dora and the Lost City of Gold and Sonic the Hedgehog. The latter received an amusingly bifurcated treatment. After one trailer introduced by James Marsden, Tika Sumpter and Ben Schwartz, co-star Jim Carrey strode onstage, eating theatrically from a giant bucket of popcorn that he then emptied by tossing on the front-row audience, and arguing that the movie should, in fact, be titled after his villainous genius character, Dr. Robotnik. In mock acquiescence, an entirely separate trailer was then shown.

CinemCon 2019 moments

More scenes from CinemaCon 2019: Jim Carrey is a popcorn fan; iconic Terminator duo Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger; the It crowd; Late Night team Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson.

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Two big action movies also received major showcases. Confirming that Terminator: Dark Fate would be a direct sequel to the first two Terminator movies directed by James Cameron, casting the other sequels as alternate timeline irregularities, director Tim Miller got emotional when reminiscing about his connection to the iconic science-fiction action franchise. “I saw the original (as a kid) in a theater in Westwood and it blew me away,” Miller said. “I was just sitting in awe of what Jim (Cameron) created on that screen, and if I had the ability to go back in time and tell that incredibly handsome nerd that he’d be continuing this story so many years later, he’d have passed out in popcorn.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and the rest of the primary cast then appeared onstage to introduce two extended scenes, which was well received by the audience. Among its callbacks and twists is the fact that now the Terminator can separate into two so that he’s twice as deadly. Hamilton, meanwhile, elicited the biggest reactions, for a sequence in which she blasts one Terminator with a hail of machine gun bullets and another with a bazooka.

Closing Paramount’s presentation, director Ang Lee crossed his fingers while introducing 3-D footage from Gemini Man, showcasing the cutting-edge technology deployed in delivering a younger version of Will Smith as an assassin who does battle with himself. “I believe that this movie gets to the pure layers of (Smith’s) personality, his performance experience, and down to the essence and innocence of him,” said Lee. “The result is heartbreaking, and something I never experienced before.”

Rounding out studio presentations on Thursday, April 4, Lionsgate delivered a streamlined pitch, with only passing mentions of anticipated movies, like director Jay Roach’s ensemble drama Fair and Balanced, or Sylvester Stallone’s franchise-closing Rambo: Last Blood. Instead, Halle Berry and director Chad Stahelski shared footage from John Wick: Chapter 3 (which adds trained canine assassins to its balletic, over-the-top action mayhem), and Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas and writer-director Rian Johnson introduced a stylish trailer for Knives Out. “I’ve always loved Agatha Christie,” said Johnson, “and this movie is my attempt to do that type of ‘whodunit,’ to jam it into a movie with an all-star cast, and set it in modern-day America.” Closing out Lionsgate’s presentation, after the announcement of a new partnership with Seth Rogen’s Point Grey Entertainment, Charlize Theron and Rogen personally introduced a screening of their new comedy Long Shot, fresh off its premiere at SXSW.

Of course, even as 2018 theatrical box office revenue set a new record with $41.68 billion worldwide, the continued rise and impact of streaming companies on the movie business was the elephant in the convention center at this year’s event. Especially after the award season exploits of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Despite its theatrical engagements, there’s no denying that more viewers eventually saw the movie via Netflix’s streaming platform than on the big screen and that many theater owners view the trend as an existential threat. No one encapsulated the tension between day-and-date streamers and exhibitors advocating for preserving the “theatrical window” of exclusivity better than Dame Helen Mirren when she blurted: “I love Netflix, but f**k Netflix. There is nothing like sitting in the cinema”

It was left to Mitch Neuhauser, the Managing Director of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and, by extension, CinemaCon, to lend nuance to that statement. “It’s going to be mind-numbing, and virtually impossible, to digest all of that content (from streaming companies),” said Neuhauser in an interview. “There’s going to come to a point in time where people get tired of getting lost in the warehouse at (the) end of Raiders of the Lost Ark with all that content. I watch my shows on streaming, and I think they’re great. But… people want to get out there and go see something with other people.”

“Look at it another way,” Neuhauser continued, after citing new studies that show those who stream the most entertainment content also tend to be repeat movie ticket buyers, and more likely to see more than 10 films annually in theaters. “Do parents really want to spend $70 on a streaming service and a party for (a bunch of their kids’ friends) and then after 10 minutes of them not getting engrossed in the movie then they’re up and running around, and so they have to deal with them? No. But if you take them out to see a movie, they sit theater and are almost always more engrossed by the experience. And I’m not just saying this because I’m the convention guy — I really believe this.”

Only time will tell how right Neuhauser is. After all, as many noted during the week in Las Vegas, predictions of the theatrical marketplace’s death or downward spiral have been a hallmark of its existence for decades, with the advent of each new technological innovation. One thing is certain, though — more change is coming, and Hollywood studios and their partners in exhibition will again have to adapt.