CinemaCon: Fox Unveils Ben Stiller’s ‘Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ Which Could Be Oscar Bound

20th Century Fox (“and it is called 20th Century Fox,” as Distribution President Chris Aronson wryly noted in his welcoming remarks) presented to theater owners at CinemaCon today. The highlight was about 12 minutes of selected scenes from the studio’s holiday release The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty as a “special presentation” at the end of Fox’s 2013 preview. Clearly, Fox is hoping to replicate last year’s success with unveiling 15 minutes of footage of The Life Of Pi.  The film directed and produced by and starring Ben Stiller is a reinvention of the 1947 Danny Kaye comedy which was based on the short story by James Thurber about a meek writer who lives vicariously through his rich fantasy life. Now Stiller is an ordinary photo editor imagining himself in numerous epic situations only to become immersed in a real life global adventure of his own. Like Life Of Pi this comedy-drama is hard to describe but the footage seemed to wow the exhibition crowd. One theater chain head told me it looked “phenomenal – the perfect holiday movie. This could be Ben’s Oscar chance.” Others compared it to the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump. Those will be music to the ears of the studio since this project had been in development through several different iterations and scripts and stars for years until Stiller and writer Steve Conrad cracked the code. Indeed, of all the footage on display this week at CinemaCon, at least those films with more than a brief snippet, Mitty looks like it could be a definite awards player next season.

Fox Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos who expertly hosted the presentation expressed excitement about its prospects. (He told me at last night’s Pioneer dinner that Mitty “definitely” has the feel of a special event picture for Fox.) This morning he called it “a remarkable, remarkable  work that runs the whole gamut of emotions… For those of us who have worked at Fox when some of the most innovative and successful films in history were made, we are proud that Mitty magnificently marries emotional storytelling with groundbreaking visuals like those previous films. But stands on its own as a rare and exceptional cinematic experience.”

With that, he introduced Stiller to the crowd and made the comparison between Mitty‘s director and the Oscar-winning Ang Lee from last year’s Life Of Pi triumph. “Yes, Ben Stiller and Ang Lee. The two of us are constantly being compared,” Ben Stiller immediately joked. “I think it was when Ang made Sense And Sensibility and I made The Cable Guy. Plus we’re both Asian and Bar Mitzvahed in Israel.”

Stiller pronounced he is alternately “happy and nervous” to show exhibitors parts of the unfinished work. “It has really been the most challenging and exciting and creative experience I have had making a movie. And it started with Steve Conrad’s script. One of the first things he said to me about Mitty was ‘inside the breasts of every American man beats the heart of a hero’. And I said, ‘Steve, men don’t have breasts.’ And he said, ‘Some men do’. But what he was talking about were the aspirations and dreams everyone has and making a movie that spoke to that journey. His script was like nothing I ever read. It was unexpected and emotional and funny and real. And also an adventure that an audience could get lost in. “I made it because it’s the kind of movie I really love going to the movies for. I love films you can’t categorize or you haven’t really seen before, that make you feel something where you leave the theater feeling different than when you walked in. Maybe you feel better or more excited about the possibilities out there. Stiller praised the cast including “legend” Shirley MacLaine who plays his mother, and Sean Penn. Then co-star Kristen Wiig appeared on stage for a funny comic bit in which she kept saying Ben was trying to keep her hidden. “You told me this event was tomorrow, Ben,”  she said.

As for the bulk of the Fox presentation, Gianopulos divided it into animaton and live action beginning with the toons, a business where Fox is challenging Disney in sheer volume what with partners Blue Sky and now DreamWorks Animation. Gianopulos noted the Ice Age series is the 2nd biggest animated franchise with $3 billion in worldwide grosses to date. (No. 2 only to Shrek from DreamWorks.) A  special filmed segment was devoted to Fox’s Blue Sky partners and a new logo with Ice Age’s Scrat was also unveiled as well as footage including the May 24th release Epic and the April 2014 sequel Rio 2. Then Gianopulos asked the audience to prepare “to have your minds blown” by a new Blue Sky project now in production. The screen image turned out to be Charlie Brown for a feature based on the Peanuts gang from Charles Schulz that will be released on the 65th anniversary of the famous strip in November 2015. Gianopulos also praised the studio’s new partnership with Dreamworks Animation and noted the worldwide success of their first entry together, The Croods, which has already grossed $400 million and will get a sequel. “It has made hanging out with my friend Jeffrey Katzenberg so much more fun,” Gianopulos quipped. Katzenberg was out of the country but a reel of DWA highlights was shown including the July 17 Turbo, the March 2014 Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and the June 2014 sequel to How To Train Your Dragon.

To kick off the live action portion the studio topper introduced Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, the stars of the June 28 release , The Heat and the pair were very funny playing off each other with perfect timing before introducing the Red Band trailer for the raunchy female buddy cop movie that screened to great response for the convention on Tuesday night. And as noted by one theatre owner there, “studios don’t show a movie here that’s not coming out for two months unless they know it’s really good”.   Coming from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) this one looks like it can’t miss and is being smartly counter-programmed to much of the macho male-dominated action films of the summer period. But the proof this film’s success will clearly be ‘in the stars’. Both are very hot now and balance each other nicely.

Following that  a number of other trailers were shown from Fox summer films including the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy, The Internship (6/7), a Percy Jackson sequel called Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters  (8/7) and Hugh Jackman’s The Wolverine (July 26). For the fall there are a pair of adult thrillers with star casts including September’s Runner Runner with a strong pairing of Justin Timberlake  and Ben Affleck , just coming off his Oscar run with Argo.  Ridley Scott’s drama, The Counselor with its all star cast including Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz  also seemed to get the crowd excited , particularly with those names , Scott behind the camera and a story from No Country For Old Men’s Cormac Mc Carthy.  And in addtion to Mitty  , the Fox holiday season will bring the CGI 3D adventure Walking With Dinosaurs.

Listing a brief rundown of what’s in store for 2014 outisde of the aforementioned animation product, Fox will be sequel happy with follow-ups to Planet Of The Apes, X-Men (both just now starting production according to Gianopulos  and Night At The Museum  among other familiar titles.

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