While the annual gathering of theater owners in Sin City wasn’t as rowdy as it might have been in pre-pandemic times, it returned to some semblance of normal as the box office makes gains and streaming turns out not to be the boogeyman that exhibitors feared.
The Hollywood Reporter headed to CinemaCon to chronicle the mood as cinema owners were treated to a diverse and (hopefully) robust slate of films that will continue to lead them out of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as a parade of stars. “We are back,” chanted Rolando Rodriguez, NATO chairman and head of Marcus Theatres.
Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chair Donna Langley assured exhibitors that the “magic of movies” isn’t an empty platitude when taking the stage to plug her studio’s varied roster of upcoming films. “It’s why we are all here today,” Langley said. “To everyone who showed up and got films back in theaters and made the experience safe, especially in times of fear, I truly thank you.”
This years’ show, running April 25-28 at Caesars Palace, touted plenty of big titles — including the first-ever look at James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of the Water (yes, it’s finally happening). And, in thanks for their patience, exhibitors were treated to the very first public screening of the long-awaited Top Gun: Maverick. Both pics went over in a big way.
While masks were a requirement at last year’s pared-down August convention, that wasn’t the case this time as the vast majority of CinemaCon attendees didn’t wear them. Las Vegas, and specifically Caesars, was packed with people as the convention overlapped with the kickoff of the NFL Draft. Traffic was diverted and congested on The Strip due to live coverage on productions from ESPN, but it bolstered the notion that life is seemingly returning to normal. That’s more good news for movie theaters.
Here were the hot topics at a CinemaCon 2022.
So much for streaming meaning the death of theatrical
Just days before the show, Netflix disclosed it lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter, which sent the stock tumbling a historic 30 percent. No one wants to revel in another company’s misfortune, but it was boost of confidence for theater owners. For years, they have been on the defensive as pundits predicted the demise of theatrical. Now, the tune is changing. (On the final day of CinemaCon, Netflix began a round of layoffs, mostly on editorial side and at Tudum.)
Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Brian Robbins, who some had worried would favor Paramount+ over the big screen, assured exhibitors he is committed to theatrical. “Movies have a better profile if they have a box office release. And I think there is room for all kinds of movies in theaters,” Robbins said during his remarks. It was a sentiment repeated again and again by studio executives as they doubled down and tried to allay any fears that studios with streaming services will favor the latter, as they did during the pandemic. National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian, whose org hosts the show, proclaimed: “I am pleased to announce that simultaneous release is dead as a serious business model, and piracy is what killed it.” When a pristine copy of a movie makes its way online and spreads, it has a very damaging impact on our industry.”
Box office recovery update
In high style, Sony Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Rothman and his top executives kicked off CinemaCon by touting the astounding success of December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which made nearly $1.9 billion globally to become the No. 3 top-grossing pic of all time domestically and No. 6 worldwide despite the pandemic. “I stood here last August and said the heart and soul of our business remains theatrical. What happened?” he asked more than 3,000 seated guests in The Colosseum at Caesars where studios hold their presentations. “Sony movies did $3.3 billion at the worldwide box office during that time.”
Still, Fithian cautioned that overall box office may not hit pre-pandemic levels until 2023 or 2024. He stressed it all depends on the content Hollywood delivers.
On the other side of the aisle, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution Chris Aronson was the lone studio executive to call on exhibition partners to do their part: “Fortune favors the bold. But we are not completely back. Now is not the time for complacency. We must work together in every way possible.” He called on theaters to enhance the guest experience. That includes making sure they don’t “numb audiences” with too many trailers. (In recent months, some circuits have increased the time of trailers and advertisements from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.)
3D returns with James Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water
3D had disappeared from the most recent editions of CinemaCon, but James Cameron brought it back with the stunning teaser trailer to one of the most anticipated movies of the decade: the sequel Avatar: The Way of Water. The sequel’s title was revealed during Disney and 20th Century’s session, and was one of the week’s hottest moments alongside Top Gun: Maverick. “We need to make sure [audiences] have an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and that needs to be exclusively in theaters,” said producer Jon Landau. Added Cameron in a video message from New Zealand: “We set out to push the limits to what cinema can do.” The teaser trailer will be released next week, exclusively in theaters, ahead of Disney/Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Additionally, the original Avatar — the highest grossing movie of all time with more than $2.8 billion — will be re-released in theaters on Sept. 23, ahead of Avatar: Way of Water’s Dec. 16 debut.
Other big bets besides the return to Pandora
The first full showing of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, which opens in late May, didn’t disappoint. The movie was supposed to open two years ago, but Paramount and Skydance pushed it several times because of the pandemic in order to give it a traditional global theatrical release. Paramount also showed footage from Cruise’s Mission: Impossible 7 — Dead Reckoning: Part 1. And Disney shared an extended scene from Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which opens next week (May 6). Warners teased several upcoming DC Comics projects: Jason Momoa’s Aquaman sequel; the long-gestating The Flash, starring Ezra Miller; and Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam.
Highlights of the 2022 summer tentpole slate included Jurassic World: Dominion and Ilumination’s animated Minions: Rise of Gru, both from Universal. Pixar has Lightyear, the first theatrical feature spinoff of the Toy Story films which follows the iconic Toy Story character, Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear.
Looking beyond summer, CinemaCon also featured new footage from anticipated action films include Sony’s Bullet Train, director David Leitch’s Brad Pitt-led ensemble film about an eclectic group of assassins set on a non-stop ride through Japan. And star Keanu Reeves and helmer Chad Stahelski introduced a first look at their John Wick: Chapter 4 for Lionsgate, which was delayed multiple times due to COVID-19.
Warners also shared plans for a sequel to its hit The Batman and Sony confirmed there will be more from their Ghostbusters and Venom installments.
Sequels, event pics and superheroes aren’t the only game in town
Proclaiming “man cannot live by Batman alone,” director Baz Luhrmann was on hand at the Warner Bros. presentation to introduce well-received new footage of his upcoming biopic Elvis, which premieres next month at Cannes. It was a sentiment repeated throughout the week amid concerns that the major Hollywood studios only care about superheroes and dinosaurs.
“Tastes change, heroes come and go, but personal stories and ideas is what will always stand the test of time,” said Universal domestic distribution president Jim Orr. The studio may be the home of Jurassic World, but its upcoming lineup stands out for being diverse. The slate arranged by Langley and her team includes Ticket to Paradise, a romantic comedy starring A-listers George Clooney and Julia Roberts; Billy Eichner’s Bros, billed as the first rom-com featuring an all openly LGBTQ cast; and She Said, the upcoming drama based on the true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning The New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, as they investigated sexual misconduct claims against Harvey Weinstein.
And, along with its tentpoles, Disney teased 20th Century’s David O. Russell film Amsterdam, a star-packed crime epic featuring a cast that includes Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro.
Memorable moments (and levity)
Dwayne Johnson — who was in Las Vegas to promote Black Adam and the animated DC League of Super Pets from Warner Animation Group — electrified the audience when showing up in person after pretending to be in Hawaii via a taped message shown on the screen in the Colosseum. Minutes later, he literally asked the crowd to roar loudly, saying he needed the sound for a war scene in Black Adam.
What a good idea. Universal paired movie theater workers with talent to promote various films. For Minions: The Rise of Gru, Steve Carell came on stage with Everod Allen, a general manager at a Cineplex in Ontario, Canada. Allen often delights his children by imitating the voice of Gru and, with some quick tutoring from Carell, there were suddenly two Grus on stage. The gig prompted one of the loudest cheers of the week.
What’s CinemaCon without a Tom Cruise stunt?
The Top Gun actor couldn’t be there in person because he’s on the set of Mission: Impossible 7 — Dead Reckoning. Instead, he piped in a video of him standing up from his seat in an antique red plane high above a canyon in South Africa. “Hey everyone,” Cruise said, with his voice muffled due to the wind. Just then, a yellow plane appeared with M:I 7 director Christopher McQuarrie inside.
From the slap to the serve
A month after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, there was an incident on another stage, this time at CinemaCon. Filmmaker Olivia Wilde was presenting her upcoming Warner Bros. film Don’t Worry Darling when a woman walked down an aisle and placed a large envelope on stage (the crowd thought it was some sort of stunt). Wilde picked it up, opened it, took a look and then moved on with her presentation without flinching. The Hollywood Reporter has learned that the envelope contained custody paperwork from Wilde’s former partner Jason Sudeikis. It’s yet known how the person got into the Colosseum; some say she was wearing a badge.
“To protect the integrity of our studio partners and the talent, we will re-evaluate our security protocols,” Mitch Neuhauser, managing director of the National Association of Theatre Owners and head of CinemaCon, told THR. He stressed that “never in the history of the event” had an incident, specifically a star being randomly approached onstage, ever occurred.
Horror rocks (just like Jamie Lee Curtis)
Jamie Lee Curtis strode on stage with her usual charm and confidence to promote Universal’s Halloween Kills, which concludes her work in the Halloween franchise and brings an end to her bloody battles with Michael Myers over five decades. “It’s been the ride of my life to portray Laurie Strode,” said the “OG” horror icon, her voice choking. She also said she now has an answer for why the genre works so well: “Horror lets us confront what we can’t control.”
Judging by how well horror can do at the box office, her insight was well-received by theater owners at CinemaCon. In fact, horror movies previewed at the convention received consistent applause (as did Curtis, of course). Universal also showed footage of Jordan Peele’s Nope, from Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, and M3GAN, about a diabolical robotic doll. New Line, another home of horror, touted Salem’s Lot, based on the Stephen King novel.
Sneakers are in, masks are out
People may be moving beyond the pandemic in terms of socializing and business outings, but some aren’t giving up all the habits learned during the COVID-19 crisis, such as uncomfortable dress shoes. Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein and his international counterpart, Andrew Cripps, both wore stylish sneakers on stage during their presentation, as did a number of other convention-goers.