CinemaCon: Universal’s Sequel Machine Pays Off With Exhibitors

It was Universal Pictures’ turn in the spotlight this morning as Chairman Adam Fogelson served up a look at the studio’s sequel-packed summer slate and a summary of the studio’s 2012 hits and even big miss Battleship. He announced sequels in varying stages of development: Snow White And The Huntsman (for a targeted 2015 date), Ted, Bourne Legacy, and also for 2015 another Pitch Perfect, that sleeper which earned $110 million worldwide and has become the 4th biggest digital download in history. But clearly the studio’s biggest franchise news – thinking audiences can’t get enough of a good thing – was star/producer Vin Diesel’s announcement that the cast will return for a 7th Fast & Furious with a release date already set for July 11, 2014. Marketing honcho Michael Moses told me afterwards that the 7th film will go into production with new director James Wan in August right after the cast finishes up its worldwide promotions for #6. For such a stunt driven movie, 11 months is not much time and sets it up for an imposing ‘fast and furious’ schedule. In fact these things go so down to the wire that #6 director Justin Lin couldn’t be in Vegas to join the cast (including Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez) and producer Neal H. Moritz on stage to talk up the new film for the pumped theater owners. Moritz said he’s been darting between London, Vancouver and LA trying to finish post-production and insert shots for the May 24th opener.

As for the heavy emphasis on sequels at the studio, producer/star Diesel said it best when he praised Universal and its execs including Universal Studios COO/President Ron Meyer and distribution head Nikki Rocco among those in the audience. “Universal has led the charge in episodic storytelling in a way I haven’t seen from any other studio. One reason Fast & Furious gets more and more successful is we really think about these pictures – where they are going two or three down the road.” Fogelson added that #6  and #7 are “really a pair. We are excited to get back into it.” Closing the presentation, Fogelson introduced a kick-ass freeway chase sequence from the middle of the film that involves a tank driven by co-star Michelle Rodriguez and lots of car’nage so to speak. The exhibitors ate it up.

Of the five movies Fogelson highlighted for Universal’s summer slate, three have numbers at the end including the animated July 3rd release Despicable Me 2. Creator and Illumination studios head Chris Meladandri was acknowledged in the audience. About 20 minutes of footage was shown and got big laughs, especially for a manic rabid chicken and new villain El Macho voiced by Al Pacino. Steve Carell returns as Gru in an undercover mission that looks like something out of James Bond.

Another follow-up is the August 16th release Kick Ass 2, the sequel to the film Lionsgate released domestically and Uni internationally but now has taken over completely. Fogelson said he was a huge fan of the first film and saw a huge after-market for the film which was not a big box office performer (grossing only about $50 million in the U.S. – normally the litmus test for a sequel). Clearly Fogelson hopes to grow the film into a monster in much the way the Fast & Furious films have morphed into major hits after modest beginnings. In the footage shown, Jim Carrey joins as Colonel Stars And Stripes in the hard-R film. (This after NATO’s John Fithian had just publicly begged Hollywood to make more family-friendly movies.) Returning stars are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz as Kick Ass and Hit Girl.

Also featured were the only two non-sequels of the summer (although both look like variations on past hits like Lethal Weapon and Men In Black). If they work, clearly they could also be headed to sequel territory. July 19th’s 3D-converted R.I.P.D. was previewed as a work-in-progress at last year’s CinemaCon: the comedy stars Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds as two hero lawmen who return from the dead to fight some very gruesome creatures who have returned to Earth to wreak havoc. (One wag sitting next to me called it ‘Dead In Black’.) Bridges seemed to be having a blast taking on his first insanely comic character since The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Footage was shown from another mismatched buddy film with Denzel Washington as an undercover DEA agent who reluctantly teams with Mark Wahlberg as an undercover Naval Intelligence Officer to take out a drug cartel. During Oscar season Washington told me he had fun on this film because it gave him a rare chance to do comedy. Wahlberg is the unofficial star of CinemaCon so far – and he’s not even here – with last night’s Pain & Gain debut from Paramount. Besides starring in Universal’s biggest 2012 hit Ted with $550 million globally, Wahlberg is also starring with Battleship‘s and John Carter‘s Taylor Kitsch in Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor for Uni. I am told there could be a late 2013 platform release. (For Oscar?)

Unusually, Fogelson spent a good chunk of time actually reminding the exhibitors that the studio also released the 2012 box office bomb Battleship directed by Berg. Studio heads normally don’t tout their failures but Fogelson told the sad tale of the film complete with graphic. “”We learned alot from that experience. We learned that although misses really hurt we are not the kind of studio that gets paralyzed by uncertainty or even finger-pointing when something doesn’t work… And that includes talent relationships that we have. And we believe in Pete Berg as a filmmaker. We have seen a first cut of his next film Lone Survivor – a true story about a heroic mission that happened during the Afghan war – and it is soulful, gritty, tough, emotional and quite frankly remarkable. And we are proud to have it at our studio and glad that Pete poured himself into so passionately.”

Fogelson also quickly mentioned a number of other films including the micro-budgeted The Purge, a new Riddick film for Vin Diesel, a new Best Men sequel, the holiday release 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves, and a 2014 comedy with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. The studio hasn’t been talking up the Oscar race yet but insiders say contenders might be two other films Fogelson mentioned: Ron Howard’s sports drama, Rush, and About Time from Richard Curtis who did Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love Actually. Bill Nighy is said to be great in it.

Of course last year Uni was touting its definite Oscar contender, Les Miserables  which went on to become a big hit with over $430 million worldwide, the second biggest musical of all time (behind their own Mamma Mia), and numerous Oscar winners. Fogelson joked that despite the success there won’t be a Les Miserables 2. “Unfortunately, not many of the characters actually survived to the end of Les Mis. There will not be a sequel forthcoming but we’re working on other options.” Can Vin Diesel sing?

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