In a refreshing change from the very choreographed presentations of the major studios that dominate the conversation at CinemaCon, STX Entertainment tonight showed off the kind of innovative and exciting slate the majors now shy away from.
Instead of the predictable retreads, STX’s lineup had not a single sequel, remake, reboot or anything we would be instantly familiar with. Instead, it was full of new ideas and potential new franchises revealed by Chairman Adam Fogelson in a breezy one hour show he promised would be “efficient.” That it was.
In its three year existence, STX has prided itself on looking for the kind of mid-budget, star-driven movies the major studios have abandoned. They hit the mother lode with Bad Moms, missed with others. It is a crap shoot, as they say in Vegas. Now, as Fogelson said, they are in the second phase of their business plan, where they exclusively put “big stars in signature roles.” Fogelson pointed to 2017 success stories like The Foreigner, teamed with STX’s Chinese backers, which stars Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan to collect $144 million globally. He also pointed to the Bad Moms sequel which at $130 million worldwide became the highest grossing R-rated sequel since 2014. Molly’s Game, franchise starter Den Of Thieves, and last weekend’s Amy Schumer opener I Feel Pretty were also mentioned before Fogelson moved on to an impressive-looking 2018 slate, which he said reflected STX’s mid-budget makeup.
The diverse lineup included Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin in Adrift. A true story in which a couple becomes stuck in the open sea in their sailboat, they are forced to face huge waves and deadly conditions in order to survive. Much of the film falls on the shoulders of Woodley. Baltasar Kormakur — who directed the survive in hardship films Everest and The Deep — shot for five weeks in natural conditions on the open water, an incredibly challenging situation. At the Mr. Chows after-party at Caesars Palace, the director said he swam personally with sharks on his day off there in Fiji, where they shot the water scenes.”No, I didn’t tell the producers,” he said, knowing the insurance carriers would never have allowed the director to do such a thing. For the really big wave scenes he did admit to using VFX, but mostly it was shot right there in normal conditions on the high seas. During the onstage presentation Woodley revealed the very personal project came to her attention from friends in Hawaii and she fought tooth and nail to get it into production until STX came along. The Lakeshore Entertainment thriller opens June 1.
Lakeshore is behind another thriller with a female hero. That is the Jennifer Garner action project Peppermint. A young mother’s child is brutally shot down as collateral damage. The murder turns Garner’s character into a “Death Wish-style” vigilante, on the hunt for her child’s killers. Fogelson called it a return to her action roots in J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Telling the CinemaCon audience she clicked with the role because it was a “smart script about a mom doing something in memory of her child,” Garner said she worked diligently to prepare physically for the role. “To avenge your child’s death, there is no greater reason to get yourself in shape and go kill people,” Garner said.
Another Jennifer, as in Lopez, wasn’t in Vegas. She was in New York City, honored for being part of the Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. But she left a video message of impassioned support for her new comedy, Second Act, in which a fabricated Facebook page leads to a whole new life and career for Lopez’s character. Co-written by Lopez’s production partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, the footage drew strong reaction from the exhibitors. Fogelson then told the crowd about a number of projects coming together with stars that include Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, and a branded title, the animated Ugly Dolls which is set for May 2019 with Pitbull doing a voice and the song score. Fogelson also announced tie-ins with Hasbro and the just-signed Walmart making a rare retail deal for an untried property.
He was joined on stage by Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, who in last year’s STX CinemaCon presentation introduced Mile 22. This time, they came to show footage of what they hope will be an action franchise-starter in the Jason Bourne mode. Wahlberg said that after three serious movies with Berg (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon) it was time to do something fun, although still steeped in the reality of the CIA and its Ground Branch ultra secret division. Wahlberg and Berg tried out a drunk act on the CinemaCon crowd but it only went so far before they “sobered” up to sell the flick.
Finally there was a plug for the most outrageous film of all, Melissa McCarthy’s The Happytime Murders from the Jim Henson company in which a group of depressed and downtrodden puppets are the center of attention in a noirish murder investigation. Think of it as a very hard R-rated version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The sentiment is captured in the film’s early ad line: “No Sesame. All Street.” Silly String (standing in for sperm) figures into the outrageously funny and raunchy sexual last images we were left with as STX’s show ended. Figure it out. It is about as blue as humor can get. You can’t say McCarthy is not afraid to take stuff to the limit. This will get people talking in advance of its August release.
At the Mr. Chow’s after-party, I caught up with STX founder Robert Simonds, who told me the company is well on its way to not only doing movies but also creating franchise opportunities across the board. He hopes those include Mile 44, which will include a TV series and a VR showcase. “You just have to make the right bet,” he says. Appearing here for the third year in a row his company appears to be pushing a lot of chips onto the table in what has become a narrowing, moving target, the mid budget film. STX’s slate was more diverse and original than any I’ve seen at CinemaCon this week.