As I sat in front of Caesars Palace’s Wheel Of Fortune Triple Extreme slot machine late Thursday night right after this year’s NATO CinemaCon convention had just ended, I realized I had much in common with the studios who had just spent the week touting their biggest and best bets to the gathered throng of theatre owners. As I continued to pump money into this computerized machine, Vanna White’s (aka in this instance also known as the Devil) recorded voice would repeatedly shout “You’re a winner!” and “Big Money! Big Money!”. I realized it was very hard to actually win the “big money”, but I kept trying and by about 2:30AM had broken even. This is probably what the endless list of upcoming movies that were heralded this week at CinemaCon will ultimately do as well. Some will win “big money”, some will break even, some will be big losers. In the end it is all a game like Wheel Of Fortune with everyone taking a spin, albeit one with big stakes. Leave it to a slot machine to really define for me what CinemaCon was all about: “Big Money” and the chase for it by all those exhibitors and studios who keep an uneasy truce in search of a mutual home run.
What discourages me – and always does at this annual confab – is that the risks being taken and touted were not generally about seeking the next big thing that we’ve never seen, but rather the next big thing that we’ve already seen. If anything what CinemaCon confirms is the adage ‘everything old is new again’ and that seems to be what exhibitors, and by extension moviegoers are conditioned to expect and line up for. Consider that the majority of titles were all sooooooo familiar: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, Star Trek Beyond, Rings, XXX, Baywatch, Ben-Hur, The Conjuring 2, The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters, Underworld, Resident Evil, Bad Boys, MIB4 (MIB23), MI:6, Jump Street 3, Jumanji 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Furious 8, Jason Bourne, more of Robert Langdon and Jack Reacher, John Wick: Chapter 2, Alice Through The Looking Glass, Pete’s Dragon, Beauty And The Beast, Star Wars (and all its incarnations), Now You See Me 2, Ice Age: Collision Course, Hotel Transylvania 3, Despicable Me 3, Smurfs, Dr Seuss’ The Grinch, Finding Dory, Cars, and an ENDLESS list of comic book movies (duh) including the promise of Batman, currently on screen in Batman V Superman and in two upcoming Justice League movies, another stand-alone Batman and even the animated spinoff, The Batman Lego Movie. Then there’s more Spiderman, both in live action and animated movies as well as a supporting role in May’s Captain America: Civil War (shown in its entirety by Disney during their slot). Don’t forget Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Thor 3, and Fox’s big confirmation of Deadpool 2, or the ever growing number of sequels to Avatar, now numbering four coming between 2018 and 2023. Even Warren Beatty, who has never done a sequel, is talking about doing them for Dick Tracy and Shampoo, at least according to New Regency’s Arnon Milchan, who is backing Beatty’s long gestating untitled Howard Hughes movie getting a release this Fall from Fox. Can’t wait for that one.
And these were just some of the titles that they are showing and announcing at CinemaCon, not the many other retreads in development. Yes, there were some cool, seemingly original movies on display too, but they are not what this convention was really selling.
Another noticeable takeaway from the 2016 CinemaCon was just how dominant animation has become in the industry. It’s not just that every studio needs to have a vibrant animation division, it is that these have become the go-to place for that aforementioned “big money”, and in many cases again relying on sequels or animated versions of live action stars like Batman and Spiderman. Universal devoted fully half its 90 minute presentation on Wednesday to its partnership with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, which is turning out two ‘toons this year with The Secret Life Of Pets and Sing, in addition to the likes of another Despicable Me, Dr. Seuss Grinch, and Minions in the near future. Warner Bros gave a lot of play to its revitalized animation division called Warner Animation Group or WAG and is relying heavily on creative teams like Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller. 20th Century Fox started off its entire presentation promoting its new Ice Age sequel, Collision Course with a song and dance performance from Vanilla Ice singing “Ice Age Baby.” And they devoted a big chunk of time within the show to let Dreamworks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg and star Anna Kendrick stir the pot for the holiday entry, Trolls ( Nov 4). Fox and DWA also sponsored a breakfast at the Palm that morning to tout Trolls (which looks great) for the press, including many Golden Globe voters.
Of course Disney/Pixar are the leaders in this area but Katzenberg has also been a pioneer in pushing animation, and now seemingly everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie. “It’s been coming for a long time, years in the coming,” he told me at the breakfast sensing this could the most competitive year ever in the Feature Animation category for which Fox and DWA already have another contender, Kung Fu Panda 3. Newcomer STX also said it is determined to get into animation and is doing so with Ugly Dolls. To prove it they gave ’em out to the exhibitors as they left their presentation. Focus Features didn’t get mentioned in parent company Universal’s show, but did manage to land a t-shirt for Laika’s latest, Kubo And The Two Strings, as well as very visible signage throughout Caesars including the escalator leading to the trade show and ballrooms. Laika has received a feature animation Oscar nomination for all three of its films to date.
And speaking of Oscars, I don’t usually come to CinemaCon looking to fill out my contender list, and neither for that matter do the studios who are here mostly to assure exhibitors they have great summer product, and that the theatrical business is here to stay no matter what Sean Parker says. BUT clearly there were a number of promising prospects trotted out or mentioned on that humungous Colosseum stage, and not just for the many likely animated contenders. Live action prospects, based on what we saw this week in Vegas (and studios hope the awards buzz doesn’t stay in Vegas) include Paramount’s Denis Villeneuve film, The Story Of Your Life with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard at their movie star best in Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (he was responsible for Par’s Best Picture win with Forrest Gump), and the announcement that Denzel Washington will begin shooting Fences this month for December release with both he and Viola Davis reprising their Tony winning roles. Sounds Oscar-baity to me. Oddly Par made no mention of Martin Scorsese’s Silence which lived up to its title this week as a no-show at both CinemaCon and Cannes announcements. Sony was the one studio that seemed to make a much bigger deal of their end-of-year awards season hopefuls by having studio chief Tom Rothman start their show touting the sci-fi drama Passengers (with stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt on hand to help) , as well as three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee’s much-awaited Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Universal showed the upcoming trailer for Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the best seller, The Girl On The Train which looks, at the very least, to have real Best Actress potential for Emily Blunt.
Fox gave a prime spot to Searchlight’s Sundance acquisition, The Birth Of A Nation with writer/director/star Nate Parker and co-star Aja Naomi King on hand after the debut of the main trailer was shown months in advance (a teaser was released yesterday). This one, considering all the hubbub out of Sundance and talk of lack of diversity at the last two Oscars, should be a slam dunk Best Picture contender. Disney has a possible sleeper with Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe, starring Oscar winner Lupita N’yonga and Selma’s David Oyelowo. Steven Spielberg’s fantastical The BFG (July 1) could defy odds of its genre and garner awards action, especially as it represents a reunion of Spielberg and writer (the late) Melissa Mathison who did E.T., which received several Oscar nods. This one is also going to Cannes next month, so who knows?
At Lionsgate’s ill-fated Thursday afternoon presentation , director Damien Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles and movie musicals, La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, looked awfully good in the clips shown and it has a prime Oscar friendly December release slot. I would say the company might have some possibility with Pete Berg’s September release, Deep Water Horizon starring Mark Wahlberg, except it looks like the pair might be more likely for the currently-shooting Boston Marathon bombing movie, Patriot’s Day, which apparently will get an American Sniper/Lone Survivor – style limited December release before going wide in January. That movie could have the kind of emotional punch that Oscar voters love. Another movie that Lionsgate has for Fall release is Ewan MacGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral that comes from Lakeshore and, from what I have heard from reliable sources who have seen it, could be a major Best Picture possibility. MacGregor stars with Dakota Fanning playing his daughter. If Lionsgate is smarting over the end of their big franchises like Twilight, Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as the unfortunately disrupted feature screening of Now You See Me 2 at their CinemaCon presentation (a bomb scare that turned out to be in the audience and not on the screen), it looks like they could have a very promising awards season.
This brings us to the two new guys on the block, STX and Amazon, who both sponsored first-ever presentations to the exhibitors in their first full year of being in business, and both came off looking very good, according to general reaction I heard and convention buzz on their lineups. Amazon, repping the indie sector showed off its reel at a Thursday lunch in the Octavius Ballroom and seems to have a lot of awards potential on its burgeoning slate, especially with Manchester By The Sea, one of their many Sundance pickups that looks like it has strong shots in acting for Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams for sure, as well as other categories including director Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay and Picture. STX, based on powerful scenes shown, could find star Matthew McConaughey back in the running for Gary Ross’ Civil War drama, Free State Of Jones (6/24). And, though the teen genre is largely ignored, The Edge Of Seventeen stars Hailie Steinfeld and is being shepherded by producer James L. Brooks, a multiple Oscar winner. It looked terrific and got great buzz, as did STX’s maiden CinemaCon presentation which didn’t have a sequel in the bunch. Of course their first release was just last August. Give them time.