Whenever I come to this annual exhibitor convention in Las Vegas, I have to remember that it is called CinemaCon, not Cinema Cannes. Expectations that studios are going to trot out anything but the tried and true, the safe bets, the same old thing are always met with disappointment. With one glaring exception at the beginning of the Sony Pictures presentation last night, that again was the case at both the Warner Bros and Sony showcases. For the play-by-play check out my colleague Anthony D’Alessandro’s live blogs of all the studio shows this week.
In the case of Warner Bros “The Big Picture,” as they always call it, it was a familiar corporate unveiling of what the studio clearly thinks these theater owners want to hear and see. Bring on as many stars, or quasi stars, as you can and sell it to the masses — in this case the exhibitors from mom and pop to AMC. If you were looking for Oscar fodder in the WB lineup, look again. But if you are a theater owner and want to be comforted by the fact that Batman, in all his possible incarnations, is not going away anytime soon, then you came to the right place.
Without missing a beat, Batman V. Superman stars Ben Affleck and Amy Adams promised that Batman will be showing up in at least two Justice League movies, a stand-alone Batman movie and even an animated Lego Batman Movie, for which star Will Arnett again appeared in front of this crowd with seemingly nothing prepared, as he did with Megan Fox touting TMNT on Monday night. At least this time he did it in his deep Batman voice. And if the promise of an endless stream of Batmania wasn’t enough, WB guaranteed that a strong lineup of DC Comics stars would all have their own movies as well, with Wonder Woman easily looking like the most promising along with this summer’s anticipated Suicide Squad, which had the audience buzzing with delight, especially with the appearance of all its many stars. Only Will Smith got to talk, though, because he is, well, the most familiar. Director David Ayer, a smart and talented helmer, also spoke, and I have a feeling, just based on the footage, that he has delivered this time. But it is very hard to review a movie off a few minutes.
As for the rest of Warners’ lineup, the NATO crowd saw a lot of what they like to fill their theaters with: names they know and trust like J.K. Rowling promising a hands-on approach in November’s attempt to continue the Harry Potter vibe without Harry Potter in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Star Eddie Redmayne appeared slightly nervous when he told the assembled Vegas audience, “I always try to find an excuse to come to Los Angeles, and this seemed like a good one.” He can be forgiven as studios just shuffle their talent like cattle onto a corporate jet and drop them off on a red carpet somewhere within Caesars Palace to sell their wares.
Footage from The Conjuring 2 and another low-budget New Line Cinema horror show called Lights Out featured the heightened sound effects and dark, scary places that pass now for these kinds of films that fit nicely into a studio schedule. Big, star-driven raucous comedies are always a part of the lineup, and in Warners’ case we are getting teamings of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys and Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in a surefire odd-couple pic called Central Intelligence (the ad line promises “A little Hart and big Johnson”).
Of course, no presentation is complete without animated movies, and the studio really seems to be delivering on its goal to ramp that up with the Warner Animation Group — or WAG — by essentially working Lego Movie creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller to death with a lineup including several variations on the Lego brand based on the success of their 2014 hit. But first up on September 23 is Nick Stoller’s Storks, which looked quite amusing, much more so than the patter of voice star Andy Samberg, who, like Arnett, had little prepared to say but tried to say it anyway. The movie will be funnier for sure.
Warners always can be counted to present a variety of movies that fit certain release slots where similar-type films have worked before, so expect Me Before You — a tragic-illness love story with Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin — to draw a huge female-skewing audience starting June 3. That’s the exact weekend another tragic-illness love story, The Fault In Our Stars, worked so well for Fox in 2014. With these movies you don’t need big names to make CinemaCon happy, just big diseases and a bestselling novel. I am really looking forward to War Dogs, the closest thing shown Tuesday that looked like it might have awards potential, or at least the potential to be something fresh and different in a sea of sameness that we get over the summer months. Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, it’s a true story about a couple of inexperienced guys who land a big Pentagon contract to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan. Director Todd Phillips and producing partner Bradley Cooper touted it to the group, and it could be The Big Short of arms-trading movies. But as for any real Oscar bait, I guess we will have to wait for another day to see what Warner Bros has in mind for this year. Prestige Academy-type product was not on view.
As for Sony, studio chief Tom Rothman did something daring — or at least as daring as you get at CinemaCon. He opened the presentation promising originality and showing off the studio’s two big year-end prestige movies and, yes, Oscar hopefuls. Footage from Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was stirring, and the clips from Imitation Game helmer Morten Tyldum’s Passengers was thrilling. It was a great, and unique, way to open one of these events. Passengers stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt came out and charmed the crowd by turning their lack of rehearsal for this appearance into a sure sign they have chemistry where it counts. Before turning it over to distribution chief Rory Bruer, Rothman said, “Let’s see Netflix do that,” referring to his two prestige pictures from world-class directors.
After that opening I could forgive Sony for also relying on the familiar from studio brands like Affirm promising lots of faith-based successes like Heaven Is For Real and Miracle From Heaven to the Screen Gems bread and blood of Underworld, Resident Evil and psycho thrillers starring African-American casts. We are getting more Ghostbusters — albeit with a female cast of funny women who were funnier onscreen than onstage last night — the Dan Brown Vatican flick Inferno with Tom Hanks and a reboot of The Magnificent Seven with about as diverse a cast as you can get, led by Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua. The studio also assured the Cinemaconers there is much more Spider-Man to come (with an appearance by new Spidey, Tom Holland) in both live-action and animated forms, more Bad Boys, Men in Blacks, Jump Streets, Jumanjis, etc. Sony’s animation arm has Angry Birds, a raunchy Seth Rogen thing called Sausage Party as well as more Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania editions.
Bottom line: At CinemaCon, studios deliver on the bottom line. And as Warner Bros and Sony proved, that is exactly what these exhibitors want to see.