Exactly one year ago, the newly formed STX motion picture group announced at the 2015 CinemaCon via a trade ad that exhibitors should “Save The Date” of April 12, 2016 when they would be making a major presentation of their product. This was unusual since most distribution and production startups need a lot more time than that to get a slate in order, especially one that calls itself a ” major studio” as STX has ambitions to be known. This morning the company made good on that promise and delivered a one hour and fifteen minute presentation with highlights from their ten picture release schedule for 2016 , and judging by the crowd response, it was a big hit with the theater owners as films like Free State Of Jones, Bad Moms, Edge Of Seventeen, The Space Between Us and the tentatively titled Jackie Chan movie, The Foreigner drew strong reaction. STX Motion Picture Group Chairman Adam Fogelson has done this kind of dog and pony show before at Caesars Palace when he was Chairman of Universal Pictures, but still this time it was an audacious roll of the dice. Other than Lionsgate no one but the six major studios get these kinds of slots.
When I spoke with Fogelson, STX President and Chief Content Officer Oren Aviv and distribution head Kevin Grayson late Monday afternoon in their suite in advance of the big day, Fogelson was circumspect, but confident. “Standing up on that stage after 18 months, when you said only 6 months into your existence you were gonna do it is a scary thing. But we are in lockstep on what we are trying to accomplish, on who we are going to accomplish it with. We are very comfortable on owning what we said we were going to do,” he said noting the startup has completely exceeded his expectations in every way. The presentation today was comparable to what the majors do here and STX flew in lots of star power to make it shine for the exhibs, including Free State’s director Gary Ross and stars Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha Raw, the Bad Moms cast of Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Jada Pinkett Smith, Christina Applegate and Annie Mumolo, The Edge Of Seventeen’s Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick, plus producer James L. Brooks and director Kelly Fremon Craig. Kicking off the star parade, Sylvester Stallone received a very warm welcome when he strode the stage to announce he would be doing a new film for STX. No other real details were provided, but at the nicely elegant and select Mr. Chow’s post-lunch, Fogelson and Aviv reluctantly said it would be a movie that combines his strengths from his most successful films but also one that could draw strong favorable critical reaction. An example they used was Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western, Unforgiven.
There was particulary strong response – you could actually hear a pin drop in the cavernous Colisseum theatre – to the devastating death scene shown in the true Civil War saga Free State Of Jones in which McConaughey tries to save a young soldier’s life after he is shot. Very powerful stuff that had the audience primed for more when the film opens on June 24th. Bad Moms, which Fogelson introduced as in the vein of many R-Rated raunchy comedies with which he has been involved like Bridesmaids and Ted, really had the exhibs roaring with some pretty outrageous very R-rated stuff. The Edge Of Seventeen was compared to the kind of character-driven teen movie John Hughes made in his heyday and also seemed to impress the crowd. No release date was mentioned by Fogelson, but he told me they are likely aiming for September with this one. The Oscar-winning Brooks was at his first CinemaCon and having a great time. He said at Mr. Chow’s that he always thought this confab would be “something to endure” rather than what he discovered – a fun place to debut your film clips and get such warm and enthusiastic response as well as seeing other films doing the same thing. Other film clips shown were from the Toronto Film Festival pickup Desierto from Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron, and the boogeyman-style horror entry The Bye Bye Man. Fogelson also said the company would be getting into animation as well with the first entry being Ugly Dolls, based on the toy line. Everyone got one of them when they exited. “Gifts are good,” smiled the STX chief when he told the gathering to pick a toy up after the presentation.
Also discussed were the four films STX has already released, beginning with last summer’s suspense thriller The Gift which cost $5 million to make and grossed $44 million domestically, the horror film The Boy, which has grossed $70 million worldwide to date, and the lower grossing star-laden adult drama The Secret In Their Eyes which made only $21 million opening opposite The Hunger Games finale in November. Fogelson was quick to point out in our conversation yesterday that it still did better than other comparable adult-targeted movies like Steve Jobs, Our Brand Is Crisis, Burnt and The Walk. STX doesn’t appear to be trying to be number one overall, just number one in their sector or close to it. They want the most bang for their buck. Barely even mentioned during the presentation was their most recent release, Hardcore Henry, the ultra violent first-person movie experience that grossed a paltry $5 million over last weekend, well below the most conservative estimates. He told the exhibitors that it was an experiment, a chance to get innovative. When I asked about it in our interview he admitted disappointment, but said it was worth it to be in business with the director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov (with whom he was also in business at Universal on Wanted). STX picked up the film at Toronto for $10 million, the same price Universal, which was also in the bidding was willing to pay, but their international output partners had already offered $8.5 million, so the exposure for STX is reportedly under $2 million. “We were very, very disappointed that it didn’t reach a larger audience,” he told me. “We understood the challenges when we acquired the film so we structured the deal in a way that we could afford to take the risk on something that deserved it. We believe in the filmmaker but we went into it smartly and are totally comfortable it is one of the ones that just didn’t work out.” He added they simply couldn’t overcome the challenge of getting the gamer audience, mostly teen males, off the couch and into a theater to see a movie that emulates the video game experience. For me it was insufferable, but I am clearly not the audience (which numbered about 20 people on opening night at the 6 PM show at the Grove where I saw it).
Robert Simonds, founder of STX, opened the presentation with STX President Sophie Watts who mapped out their game plan for the exhibitors before Fogelson took over to M.C. the proceedings. Afterwards, Simonds told me that even though they have released four films, they don’t represent the future direction of what the company is trying to be. He said it begins from here at CinemaCon and what they are showing to exhibs of future product which will jump to a planned 12 films in 2017. In fact, Fogelson points out Free State Of Jones was actually the first film to be greenlit by STX. It has just taken longer to come to market. In every instance on their films shown today there is a credit for HBrothers and their Chinese logo. The Huyai Brothers Media are early investors in STX, but the executives are quick to point out that just because there is a lot of Chinese capital in the compan , they are not necessarily thinking how these movies are going to play in China before greenlighting them, a fact that seems to be misrepresented in the press often. “It’s misunderstood. We do have a strong relationship with folks in China. We have Chinese investors in STX Entertainment, the global media company, and we do have an investor in our movie slate, but all the decisions are made in Burbank (STX headquarters),” Aviv pointed out in our conversation here at CinemaCon , adding that there is no mandate for a certain number of Chinese movies although he noted that The Gift is likely being remade as a local Chinese film, and The Boy became the first U.S. produced horror film to play China.
To show the level of variety STX is aiming for, Fogelson told the crowd of yesterday’s breaking news that the company is reviving Barbra Streisand’s planned musical of Gypsy, a longtime dream of hers that was put into turnaround by Universal. Fogelson was very familiar with the material when he was at U and is hoping all the pieces come together to make this a reality for a Fall shoot. “There’s a real shot at getting this thing done this year. It’s a fast turnaround . I think Barbra doing a movie like this in her career now is a global event. We all have a vision for it at a price where it all makes sense. It would be incredibly exciting if we figure out how to pull it off,” he said, adding director Barry Levinson is aiming to sign on and has a very good take on the material and the script written by Richard LaGravenese. Joel Silver is still attached as producer. For STX it is all just part of a master plan where artists can bring projects that actually have a chance of getting made in the way they envisioned, again for a price (with an $80 million cap at this point).
All in all, Fogelson ended today’s presentation by telling STX’s exhibitor partners he and everyone at the company are having a blast. He told me that as well because they have a clear vision of what they want to do. Clearly STX came to CinemaCon on a self-imposed dare to sell that vision to the theater owners who will have to play their films. It’s simple, or at least seems that way. “There is an audience for a lot of commercial films. The whole reason this company was created is not because these films weren’t working anymore and we were going to come in and make them work. It’s that they were working but the majors just don’t have the bandwidth to focus on them because of the tentpoles and franchises. And the mini-majors don’t have the resources to treat them the way the majors would (or should),” he said. That’s the soft creamy center of the pie STX is looking to carve out for themselves.