Universal wowed exhibitors this morning with a presentation that went way beyond just showing off what they have this summer. Among the films getting their first look anywhere was Scarlett Johansson’s summer action flick Lucy, the long-gestating follow-up to Dumb And Dumber with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels back in Dumb And Dumber To, plus hot-button first looks at footage from 2015 releases including with the late Paul Walker in the April 2015 Fast & Furious 7 and Valentine’s Day 2015 opener Fifty Shades Of Grey. According to the studio’s Donna Langley, this was the first time anyone has viewed any of it outside of the Universal hierarchy. It was a good teaser but stopped shy of showing any of the really hot stuff. The 2015 spinoff of Despicable Me, Uni’s biggest domestic hit ever (the sequel that is), Minions also got a hearty response from the pumped-up crowd who is anxious for a few hits. It looks like over the course of the next two years this studio is determined to give some to them. But despite all of this news-making footage it was clearly Angelina Jolie who stole this show. As the only star Universal trotted out onstage, she was there this time as the director of their Christmas Day release Unbroken, and introduced seven minutes of footage from what definitely looks like a possible Oscar juggernaut. It has all the makings.
With all its top executives present — including Ron Meyer, new chairman Jeff Shell (who told me this was his first time ever at CinemaCon), Langley, and distribution president Nikki Rocco among others — the studio presented a diverse slate with lots of sequels, raunchy comedies from a couple of Seths (Rogen and MacFarlane), hard action flicks and a couple of films that look like they have heavyweight Oscar potential — and breakout box office prospects. That would definitely be the Jolie film, which tells the incredible inspirational story of Olympic runner and World War II POW Louis Zamperini. About three minutes of it was seen during the Winter Olympics, but this was the first extended look. Also the exhibs got to see more footage of the upcoming summer 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up with what looks like a potential awards-bait turn from 42’s Chadwick Boseman as the legendary soul singer. He’s lip-synching to Brown’s voice but it looks, based on this footage, to be a real crowd-pleasing performance and comes from the director of The Help Tate Taylor, who enlisted two of that film’s stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to join this one too.
If there was a mantra for today’s presentation it is convincing exhibitors that Universal belives this is a year-round business — not just summer and Christmas as Rocco assured them. She backed it up pointing out their early 2014 hits, Lone Survivor and Ride Along, were huge in what is usually a downtime for new product. She also mentioned Non-Stop as another early hit for the studio. Meyer gave her a warm introduction and she got it rolling with footage from the Rogen-Zac Efron raunchfest Neighbors, of which the studio is so confident they are showing the May 9th release in its entirety later tonight with a party to follow. It already premiered at SXSW to good response, but judging from the crowd reaction here they have a surefire hit. Ditto for an increasingly rare foray into the comedy Western genre with MacFarlane’s A Million Ways To Die In The West (May 30). Perhaps no one wants to do these kinds of comedies for fear of being compared to Mel Brooks’ all-time classic Blazing Saddles, but it looks like MacFarlane has put his usual outrageous brand on the genre and delivered the laughs — at least on the few minutes shown at the Caesars Palace Colisseum today. Dumb And Dumber To also scored with the reprise of the moronic comedy act of Carrey and Daniels who are much older now but apparently no less clueless. Footage was also shown from Uni’s low-budget terror sequel Purge: Anarchy (July 18), as well as brief teases for other 2015 films including Jurassic World and sequels to Pitch Perfect and Ted as well. The rollout of 2015 films was clearly designed to assure the exhibs the studio was still in the tentpole and sequel business despite an abundance of more original titles this year than is the norm.
But the clear highlight came with Unbroken. Let the Oscar speculation begin even though it is only March and no one has seen the finished movie yet. At this year’s Oscar Governors Ball Jolie was clearly excited about this one which she told me she was still deep into post -production and working on. The backstory of the film is extraordinary. Langley says it was originally in development as a vehicle for Tony Curtis in 1957 but never got made. In over a half century since then it has attracted – and lost – many directors and actors until a best selling book about Zamperini came out in 2010 and Jolie willed this project into action. Langley says she is the reason it got made without doubt. For Jolie, it was a simple decision to throw herself into what looks like a movie that will have equal appeal to audiences and Academy members. “I wanted to make this film because in the end its message is one that we now need more than ever. It’s the journey of a man finding his way out of the darkness and into the light. It is about an imperfect person, one who we and our children can relate to. Someone who helps to remind us all what each of us is capable of – to never lose heart, to find brotherhood with our fellow man, to gain strength with our family, to identify our fears and our pain, to come face to face with the darkness and to never, ever give up. We are unbroken,” she said as the footage rolled and was very well received in the theatre. The movie could also provide a real Oscar opportunity for its ten-time nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins and six-time nominated composer Alexandre Desplat among others. Universal knows what they have here and that is why it grabbed the Christmas Day slot. Time will tell but it smells to me like the 2014 Oscar race just got started this morning at CinemaCon.