Burbank came to Vegas today, as both Disney and Warner Bros attempted to wow exhibitors in their own patented ways at CinemaCon. Disney brought the movies. Warners brought the stars. Both played well in the desert, and especially with the mom and pop theater owners who eat this stuff up.
In all my years attending WB’s “The Big Show” presentations here, I have never seen the sheer number of filmmakers and actors who boarded the corporate jet and hit the Colosseum stage. Hosted amusingly by Will Arnett, aka Batman in the studio’s Lego movies, Warners trotted out a planeload of talent to awkwardly hawk their 2018 films, some of them obviously having not given a thought as to what they might say about those films. Nevertheless the exhibs sitting around me right center in the orchestra section audibly were excited to see them. Especially when the Ocean’s 8 female cast came out, led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. The slate of movies these stars were hawking were familiar to anyone who knows the kind of things that tend to get greenlit at Warners.
There were the Conjuring universe horror films like the upcoming The Nun, plus a promise for Sept 2019 of It 2, after the first became the most successful horror film ever; plus yet another Jaws wannabe called The Meg, which was described as “Jaws on steroids.” There were the rowdy comedies, such as Melissa McCarthy’s May 11th release Life of the Party, and the June 15th guy flick Tag, with Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner. There were a number of brightly lit animated entries like Small Foot and the Arnett-produced Teen Titans Go to the Movies, the latter armed with the clever premise of super hero hopefuls who can’t get their own film deal.
Andy Serkis brought out footage of his long-gestating directorial effort Mowgli, which looked quite good, but is trying not to seem like it is coming out in the shadow of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Blanchett was back on stage for that one, along with Benedict Cumberbatch — both voice animals in the film. Eddie Redmayne and the cast of the second of five planned Fantastic Beasts films, Crimes of Grindelwald, also took the stage. Representing the DC universe was director James Wan and his Aquaman cast, including star Jason Momoa. Visually, it looked pretty fantastic; hopefully the story follows suit. The aforementioned and latest in the studio’s Ocean’s franchise is tipped to be a breakout hit, and the theater owners in attendance seemed to sense that.
Bradley Cooper brought a sneak peek of the trailer for his directorial debut of A Star Is Born. It is the third time Warners has made a version of the story, and the fourth cinematic telling of the doomed show business romance. Cooper has set his in the world of country music, fueled by a breakout opportunity for his co-star, Lady Gaga. Both Gaga and Cooper sang their songs live in the film. Early buzz from those who have seen it in rough form is really strong on this October release, which was initially pegged as a directing vehicle for Clint Eastwood. This could be Warners’ most promising Oscar candidate this year. Perhaps the most unexpected for Warner Bros fare was the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. It is unique in that it is one of the very few romantic comedies coming this year from a major, and it also reps the first all-Asian-American cast in a studio film in about 25 years. Based on an international best-seller, the film seems to have a real shot at crossover success, with a decided appeal toward an audience that is under-served in this genre.
Taking an opposite tact from the starry presentations by Warner Bros and Sony, Disney stressed the concepts and branded films that have made it Hollywood’s dominant studio. It brought not a single star or director to wow exhibitors at CinemaCon this morning. Instead, the studio let the product speak for itself, even if there was not a single title that needed explanation from this most brand-conscious of all studios. The audience at the Caesars Palace Colosseum seemed to devour it all. Outgoing distribution head Dave Hollis sang about the box office — nearly $20 billion in global box office over the past three years — and Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn and new Head Of Distribution Cathleen Taff showed off the next slate that will crush the dreams of every other studio. That included Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War which opens this week, and Ant-Man And The Wasp this summer. There was also a plug for Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, which just started production.
On the family side, there was an ode to Disney’s Winnie The Pooh franchise, with Ewan MacGregor as an adult Christopher Robin. It looked sweet. Holiday offerings The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, as well as Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, were well-received. The latter was particularly strong, coming only 54 years since the last Mary Poppins crowned Walt Disney’s career, getting 13 Oscar nominations and Best Actress for Julie Andrews. No pressure there, but it seems to have the same sense of magic that beloved film continues to have as an enduring classic. Sources I trust say the new one delivers. Disney loves to constantly reboot itself, so it’s no surprise to see live-action versions of Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King were all trotted out for first-ever sneak peeks. When the CGI’d baby elephant Dumbo appeared on the giant screen from Tim Burton’s production, there were audible “ahhhhs” from the crowd, which also seemed to be just fine with Will Smith taking over Robin Williams’ iconic genie in the new Aladdin. Saved for the end was Jungle Book director’s Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic “Circle of Life” from the new Lion King. It looked like Favreau has nudged the technology forward and the images drew huge applause to end the presentation.
That said, the biggest reaction I have heard to a film so far at this 2018 CinemaCon came when footage was shown for the Walt Disney Animation Studios November 21 release, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. In the footage, Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope gets inducted into the Disney Princess club by all the current members. It’s LOL hilarious and smart stuff. If the rest of the film lives up to it, the film could give Wes Anderson’s wondrous Isle Of Dogs a real run for the Animated Oscar, the one that the original Wreck -It-Ralph actually deserved but didn’t get. It was pointed out that between Disney and Pixar ‘toons, the studio has owned that Oscar the last six years in a row.
Naturally, the Star Wars juggernaut got its moment as well, with extended footage from Ron Howard’s upcoming Solo which will premiere in Cannes next month.
If you asked me which the exhibs preferred, the stars tub thumping Warners and Sony fare, or the Disney team which exhibitors need to stay on the good side of, my hunch is these exhibitors would probably opt for the latter. Nevertheless, both Burbank-based studios are basking in riches; Warners had its best year ever with $5.1 billion in 2017, not far behind Disney’s second best year in ’17 with $6.5 billion. It must be nice to have these problems. Incidentally, not a single mention of Fox was heard at Disney this morning, and you can bet there won’t be a single mention of Disney at the Fox presentation on Thursday morning.
In between today’s studio slate shows, I snuck off to the Palms Hotel, where Disney arranged a screening of The Avengers:Infinity War for press and critics like me stranded in the desert and unable to be in L.A. for the first screenings. My full video and print review runs later this week, but suffice to say this all-star mashup of Marvel superheroes lives up to the hype, manages to surprise, and lays out more questions than answers to be answered in the next installment which The Russo Brothers shot back to back. The Cleveland-raised siblings have done it again with a film that nails the perilous times we are living in. More to come on that.