Back in their usual CinemaCon Monday night kickoff slot after a detour last year to a morning berth, Paramount and Vice-Chairman Rob Moore seemed much more comfortable leading the parade of product reels and star visits that the major studios, along with STX and Lionsgate, will be showing off all week at the big annual exhibitors confab at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The giant advertising posters adorning the outside of the massive Colosseum indicated the studio was going to be selling theater owners a lot of what they have seen before — and apparently want to see again — including another chapter of those Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows for a June 3 launch; Star Trek Beyond; and the August 19 release of Ben-Hur, an Pete Hammond badgeepic remake of the huge 1959 all-time Oscar winner (tied with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return Of The King with 11 statuettes each). I’m not sure any of these is necessary for anything but Par’s bottom line, but the crowd seemed happy to see them all.

Extensive footage of the famous chariot race from Ben-Hur certainly benefitted from strides in CGI action and the movie is even being offered in 3D! Its dog days of August opening gives one pause, but perhaps Paramount has discovered a faith-based audience dying to see a biblical epic like this at the end of summer. The exhibitors heard the pre-recorded voice of co-star Morgan Freeman (is there one of these things he is not in?) as well as an in-person appearance from star Jack Huston who isBen Hur_edited-1 trying to fill Charlton Heston’s shoes — and might come close based on the footage. But I could have done without another visit to those ever-popular Turtles, a money-minter for Paramount and Nickolodeon to be sure. The lame in person attempt at comedy by the human stars, Will Arnett and a perplexed Megan Fox, introducing the clips was, how shall we say, awkward. A bit where they delivered pizza to someone named Alan in the audience also seemed to have the game pair lost at sea.

In fact, I have to say the earlier segment honoring a very funny, and charming, 91-year-old boxoffice cashier from Colorado Springs before the Paramount presentation got under way was ten times more amusing and well-received by the crowd. And if you think the summer offerings are a bit of déjà vu, even into October the familiar will be oozing from the Marathon lot with another Jack Reacher film called Never Go Back. That seemed like a sturdy reunion for director Ed Zwick and star Tom Cruise, who worked together last on The Last Samurai, with the latter introducing the solid first look via tape from London. Cruise described the movie as somewhat retro in that it is about “an analog character in a digital world.” Moore also touted the usual October horror flick from the studio, this time a reboot of Rings (Oct 28).

After glimpses of all these rather predictable entries, things got more interesting in terms of fresh meat for Oscar campaigns with fall pictures including Florence Foster Jenkins, an English language version of the same story being told in the current French Cesar winning Marguerite, starring the indomitable Meryl Streep as the world’s worst singer (or close to it). That one is actually late summer with an August 12th date — a good one for Streep pictures it seems. Robert Zemeckis’ WWII drama Allied (Nov 23), with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, also was teased to nice effect. Both stars looked great and, well, like actual old-fashioned movie stars in the footage for the currently-shooting movie.

ParamountJeremy Renner and Amy Adams turned up in person to tout their fall entry, a UFO drama from ace director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) also for fall, and then the formal announcement (which Deadline had already leaked well before this) of the film version of the late August Wilson’s Broadway drama Fences from director and star Denzel Washington and co-starring Viola Davis. Washington revived the show, originally starring James Earl Jones, in 2010 on Broadway winning a Tony Award in the process. Could a third Academy Award be far behind? This one sounds like pure Oscar bait, especially in the era of #Oscarssowhite. It might be a nice opportunity to give the brilliant Davis another shot at the gold too. Like Washington, she also nabbed a Tony for the play. Both were brilliant and the play’s great.

Viola-Denzel-610x350With high class movies like this, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation, and Jeff Nichols’ 50s-set biracial romance drama Loving already announced in the running, this new Paramount entry just getting underway and slated for December release could mean the Academy will have ample opportunity to dodge the lack-of-diversity label come next January when nominations are announced, at least as far as movies starring African Americans are concerned. Studios seem to be stepping up to the plate, but it should be remembered that Paramount actually had a Best Picture nominee in Selma just about 15 months ago. There was no mention at all of the still-undated Martin Scorsese film Silence, also expected to be on Par’s list of possible contenders come fall.

Before wrapping up, Moore intro’d taped bits with star Vin Diesel pushing a new XXX actioner now shooting for 2017, as well as a big sreen Baywatch with Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron and plenty of babes in bikinis for the choice slot of May 2017. The latter two certainly are the opposite of Oscar bait but the studio looks like it has some promising awards prospects come fall.

Coming towards the end of the Paramount show, which came in well under two hours, was a nice tribute to one of their cash cow producer/directors J.J. Abrams receiving CinemaCon’s Showman Of The Year Award presented by one of his frequent stars, Simon Pegg. The busy Abrams, who just 24 hours earlier was appearing at Deadline‘s The Contenders Emmys event at the DGA, talking up his jj-simon-cc2016-horiz-coverHulu miniseries 11-22-63, has 10 Cloverfield Lane currently in theaters with his producer’s hat, and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond from director Justin Lin opening July 22. During his acceptance, Abrams claimed to be a little envious as he says Lin may be delivering the most thrilling Trek yet. He was a popular choice for the award, at least judging from the enthusiastic applause from exhibitors sitting around me who are still basking in the glow of the director’s Star Wars reboot in December. He’s clearly the new Spielberg, that is if Spielberg himself can’t still lay claim to that title. And he’s a genuinely nice guy. “It would be forgivable to be the biggest asshole in the Hollywood, but he isn’t,” Pegg said in all sincerity introducing him.

For his part, Abrams showed off the passion he has for movies and the industry, but didn’t dive overtly into the Screening Room controversy for this humungous crowd of theater owners in his brief remarks (he’s a supporter of the controversial Sean Parker proposal that takes day and date home viewing to a new level), but you could interpret that he was broaching it abstractly. “Much has been said of other technologies that threaten the theatrical experience, and of course I’m no expert in anything and am open to all points of view and any good ideas that will keep theaters thriving. But we need to do everything we can in this age of piracy and different technology and disruption to be thoughtful partners in the evolution of this medium,” he said. “You have to adapt. That is going to be required of all of us. We need to meet that challenge with excitement and creative solutions and not fear. But in my view it’s simple. There is nothing better than going to the movies and there never will be.”