All I can say after this morning’s rousing Universal presentation at CinemaCon complete with a very Vegas-style performance by Cher singing an ABBA tune, 20th Century Fox really has its work cut out for it tomorrow if its want to keep the showmanship title they earn year after year here for splashy presentations.

Universal’s turn was a dazzling display right from the start with Night School stars Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish entering through the massive Caesars Palace Colosseum Theatre to the stage. It was followed by a very commercial selection of movies and clips starting with what looks to be a sure-fire Oscar contender for the studio, First Man, the October release about Neil Armstrong directed by La La Land’s Oscar winner Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Based on the impressive footage shown it looks like a high-quality follow-up teaming for Chazelle and Gosling, who were joined on stage by Foy to introduce the first-ever look at the movie.

Kudos to Universal for putting everything on a teleprompter for the parade of stars they brought out instead of letting them twist in the wind searching for the right things to say about their films as evidenced often up there this week.

Universal also wasted no time getting to the stars and clips, and delaying the inevitable talk of how many billions they are making for later in the show.  And despite the inevitable sequels on tap like First Purge, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdomand Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again plus the first of the DreamWorks titles How To Train Your Dragon: Hidden World,  there was a good amount of originals but most of them echoed films of the past.

Jack Black, Cate Blanchett (who seems to be in every other movie at this year’s confab) and director Eli Roth showed off  their homage to Spielberg-type movies from the 1980s with The House With a Clock in Its Walls (it comes from Amblin), and M. Night Shaymalan served up the creepy Glass which is essentially a mash-up of his previous films Split with James McAvoy and Unbreakable with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. All three stars and their director presented  the promising footage.

The studio’s show was chock-full of footage premieres including some really terrifying stuff from yet another reboot of Halloween —  but this time with a direct link to the 1978 John Carpenter original, with Jamie Lee Curtis returning to the role of Laurie Strode 40 years later for a new go-round with Michael Myers. Curtis was a welcome presence introducing the trailer and proclaimed that other than Star War , this is the first time an actor returned in a starring role they first played 40 years ago. I also loved the fact that she actually apologized to the theater owners for her 1999 movie Virus, becoming the only person in recent memory to do something like that at CinemaCon. She did guarantee a good time at this Halloween, which truly looked terrifying. “It will scare the living shit out of all of you,”  she promised before rolling the footage.

It certainly unnerved Hart, who returned to the stage to tout Night School again with Haddish, who he kept referring to as the winner of Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics.

There were taped intros for a couple of other original titles including Peter Jackson from New Zealand talking up December release Mortal Engines, which if I didn’t know better looked like a remake of a ’60s Roger Corman movie with Vincent Price called Master of the World. It was full of action whatever its inspiration.

Also Dwayne Johnson , who said he couldn’t be there because he was on baby duty, made a longish video in which he claimed his summer film Skyscraper is shockingly not based on a ride, video game, prequel, sequel, remake, etc., but a true original story from writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber who was brought out onstage. Johnson proceeded to compare the burning building movie to Towering Inferno and Die Hard. So much for originality. It looked like familiar Johnson heroics in an effort to save his family trapped high atop the flaming structure, despite the fact he was an amputee from his time in Iraq. The exhibs seemed happy, but if it doesn’t work Johnson promised the blame would be on the writer-director.

Universal

Universal chairman Donna Langley got to do the honors for the final two films, the studio’s summer biggies the Jurassic World sequel (intro’ed by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard), and the Mamma Mia follow-up intro’ed by co-star Amanda Seyfried, who also had the honors of bringing on Cher for the big surprise finale — complete with several dancers swirling around as the star was finally revealed on a moving set surrounded by cutout palm trees. If I remember nothing else from this CinemaCon I will remember this. I suppose that’s the point.

And right according to plan as the studio hijacked CinemaCon today, the theater owners marched immediately to the Octavius Ballroom lunch for Universal’s s specialty division Focus Features and its second consecutive slate show here. It was far more modest than the mother ship’s turn in the spotlight but offered a lot of never-before-seen footage from what are clearly the division’s Oscar hopefuls this year — the after after nabbing 14 nominations including two for Best Picture and three wins for Darkest Hour (a Blu-ray was in everyone’s gift bag) and Phantom Thread.

This being Focus, chairman Peter Kujawski couldn’t throw around the billion-dollar box office boasts as at other presentations, but he did tout a half –billion which was pretty good anyway. Distribution head Lisa Bunnell chastised early-voting critics groups for not showering Darkest Hour with love but credited the theater owners for sticking with the film, thus allowing Focus to build momentum on the road to Oscar.

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First looks (not trailers) were shown for four films including Spike Lee’s Cannes-bound BlackkKlansman, a true story about an African American police detective who infiltrated the KKK in 1978. Lee has clearly added his own ironic humor and tone to the film which, at least based on the footage shown, demonstrates the complete incompetence of the KKK including a bumbling David Duke. Star John David Washington (Denzel’s son), and Jason Blum, who produced with Jordan Peele, talked it up and lauded Lee’s sensibilities in taking on this still-kinda incredible true tale.

 

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Actor-turned-director Joel Edgerton turned up with star Lucas Hedges to show a first look at Boy Erased, another true tale about the 19-year-old gay son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) who is urged to undergo conversion therapy after coming out to his parents. Edgerton noted he was attracted to the original book because the time is right to keep this story in the conversation. Hedges talked about how he found himself stunned to be working opposite Kidman.  This one looks quite strong, but don’t expect Mike Pence to be lining up for it this fall.

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Mimi Leder and star Felicity Jones appeared to tout On the Basis of Sex, yet another true story (financed by Participant) about the young Ruth Bader Ginsberg — who they say loves the film, and approved the script which was written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman. They both expressed surprise that while filming the movie the #MeToo movement began, appropriate according to Leder since Ginsberg’s legacy speaks to gender, pay and other equality issues. Jones, who seems to have captured Ginsberg in all her doubt and glory as a young woman, said it is a remarkable story because despite many setbacks Ginsberg never gave up and persevered all the way to the Supreme Court. They didn’t mention there is also a highly praised new documentary, RBG,  from Magnolia and Participant opening May 4 after premiering this year at Sundance.

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Finally, Focus showcased their December release — another true story (haven’t they heard of fiction?) — Mary Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, the latter appearing today via a taped video greeting. Ronan and first-time feature director and stage veteran Josie Rourke were live in person.

Ronan said she first became attached to playing Mary when she was 18 and has stuck with it for six years, the project always in the back of her mind and giving her time to immerse herself in the period. Asked by moderator Dave Karger to compare her Scottish accent to the one from Sacramento she did for her recent Oscar-nominated performance in Lady Bird, she said the latter was much harder because it is kind of “lazy.” The Scots, as well as the Irish, tend to sing their sentences, she said, before apologizing to any theater owners who may be from Sacramento.