The 2017 CinemaCon extravaganza was once again a whirlwind. But, isn’t it always?
Theater owners grumbled about potential new high priced VOD windows and only one studio (Warner Bros.) even broached the subject during their presentation. There were big stars. There were unrecognizable “stars.” There was a former Vice President and Nobel Prize winner (Al Gore). And there were incredibly annoying entertainment news personalities who were used as hosts for some of the presentations (we’re looking at you Universal and Focus Features). And one studio, Paramount, tried to give an upbeat showcase of its current mix of tentpoles and profitable prestige titles while a just hired new chairman and CEO waits in the wings (no easy task).
Film festivals and events like Comic-Con provide great new movies to get excited about and sneaks of upcoming films, but CinemaCon is the experience of witnessing a marketing and business plan being pitched to the studio’s partners, the world’s theater owners. Because of that you can read much more into a distributor’s goals and future than an annual Q&A during a stockholder conference call. What doesn’t get mentioned is just as important as what is and if a slate looks weak from just a box office perspective you know somebody’s gonna be in trouble down the road. And yet, just a few days after the end of the annual Vegas it’s the first lingering trend we’re going to discuss that has us most anxious.
Where were the female directors and films about people of color?
Following a year where “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight” dominated awards season and the box office it was jaw dropping how few films centered on African-American or Hispanic leads were previewed. Oh, wait. We have an exact count: five. Universal’s broad summer comedy “Girls Trip,” STX Entertainment’s thriller “Den of Thieves” (January 2018), Screen Gems’ thriller “Proud Mary” with Taraji P. Henson, Lionsgate’s “How To Be A Latin Lover” (likely aimed only at Latino audiences) and the Tupac biopic “All Eyez On Me” (which looked terrible). And if you want to count “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek opposite Ryan Reynolds or “The Fast of the Furious” which once again includes a diverse cast we’d count them begrudgingly. For some context, there were 10 individual studio presentations where a minimum of seven movies were previewed or highlighted. Do the math. It’s not good and this should be a huge wake up call to studios that are in the middle of green lighting films that might make it into theaters the end of the year or in January. It’s clear that Hollywood is failing backward already. Even more disheartening was the lack of female directors or PoC directors that graced the CinemaCon stage. Only two studios that can even claim to be making some progress in this regard are Disney and Warner Bros. The Mouse House only releases about 8 films a year at this point and two of their upcoming live action tentpoles will be directed by women: Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and Nikki Caro’s “Mulan.” The rest was simply embarrassing. Warner Bros. has the upcoming “Unforgettable,” “Everything, Everything” and “Wonder Woman” but that is just three out of 18 new releases in 2017. Sony Pictures has “Rough Night” and that’s it for the entire year. Currently, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal have zero releases with female directors. That’s disheartening considering Fox and Universal are actually run by women studio chiefs.
If you’re not putting on a show you’re wasting an opportunity
As usual, 20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops for their presentation. They began with a dance number featuring iLuminate that wowed the crowd and ended their event with a musical number that found audience members jumping into the stage to sing an original song from “The Great Showman” as balloons fell from the ceiling. Sony Pictures used projection digital mapping that expanded beyond the stage to provide a graphic look for their showcase. It might not have featured any song and dance, but it got the attendees attention and the design (including Sony Pictures branding without the traditional Sony electronics logo) made them reconsider what they “thought” Sony Pictures was. Even Amazon Studios added some zing to their lunch presentation by having stars pass out candy and by having t-shirts blasted out from the stage like it was an NBA game. Almost every other studio brought out famous faces, but only Paramount really surprised anyone with who they had on hand (Matt Damon and George Clooney were not expected). Can going overboard detract from the movies you’re selling? Sure, but when you are competing against nine other distributors it makes more sense to include some razzle-dazzle if you can.
15 minutes of ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ felt like 3 hours
It was kind of Paramount Pictures and director Michael Bay to screen 15 minutes of unseen footage of the latest “Transformers” movie, but there was little shown that will excite anyone beyond the admittedly large hardcore fan base. The world appears on lockdown after the events of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Robots are being hunted and killed whether they are good or bad (they were already being hunted in the previous film) and Chicago still seems to be a deserted war zone. The twist to this installment is that we discover the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable had members who were also Autobots. Those robots (or their technology) are the ones that chose Arthur and they have now found someone else worthy enough to follow in his footsteps, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Anthony Hopkins shows up as a keeper of these secrets (aka the exposition explaining everything) and he’s got a WW1 tank that’s an Autobot. Oh, and we find out Transformers fought the Nazi’s in WWII (yet, somehow they had never been heard of before the first “Transformers” movie). There is also a spunky, young teenager who is fighting the good fight (Isabela Moner) and Josh Duhamel’s character returns after sitting out the last installment. Oh, and something recovers and revives Optimus Prime just in time to save the day (shocker). And, again, that was all revealed in just 15 minutes of footage so if that wet your appetite, get excited I guess.
Amazon Studios knows how to do it right
While Netflix continues to not make friends with its aggressive day and date strategy, Amazon has fostered a loving relationship with theater owners. Their end of convention luncheon was packed and there was genuine love in the room. It’s partially because Amazon has provided two unexpected crossover hits in “Love and Friendship” and “Manchester by the Sea” which brought in older audiences that can be finicky moviegoers, but also because they push the theatrical experience first, the streaming window second and have already proven a consistent arbiter of quality content. Their presentation also featured entertaining talent and sneaks of a lot of their upcoming material from a new trailer for Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” (somehow looks heartwarming, commercial and a recognizable Haynes’ movie all at the same time) to a complete scene from Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” (Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne in a road trip dramedy). And while other studios were cagey about where certain projects were or when they might be released, Amazon marketing and distribution head Bob Berney bluntly noted they hadn’t seen a frame of Woody Allen’s next yet and the “Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Project” was shooting but they had nothing to show. People in the movie business don’t mind bad news they just want you to be honest about it. It’s a byproduct of an industry that is so dependent on its partners to actually make money. Amazon had no bad news, but their frankness once again worked wonders.
Where was the MPAA?
Having attended CinemaCon for five years this is the first time I can remember the head of the MPAA, former Senator Christopher Dodd, not presenting to the body. Dodd would usually participate in the “state of the industry” portion of the convention during the first morning session. The MPAA revealed that Dodd could not attend because of a scheduling conflict, but that seemed odd. CinemaCon’s dates were announced at least six months beforehand. Moreover, the MPAA did not reveal what the conflict was exactly. Considering it would have been easy to have Dodd deliver even a short video message, it all, again, seemed odd.
Why is the media ignoring the dramatic increase in 12-17 moviegoers?
That session Dodd missed featured an annual industry report from NATO that included MPAA statistics as well as research the body has conducted on its own. One of the big messages from the data collected was that while millennial attendance has decreased over the past five years it has already leveled out and there was an uptick in 2015 and 2016. The cord cutting and decrease of attendance by millennials has been a constant drumbeat from industry reporters in major publications for a good portion of this decade. What they are ignoring is the dramatic increase in attendance from 12 to 17-year-olds. Even with seemingly less “teen” films being made by Hollywood this audience is flocking to theaters to catch other four quadrant films (the graph shown showed attendance skyrocketing over the same five-year period). The big question is why is this story being ignored by the business reporters covering the industry? It’s actually a big reason why 2016 was such a successful year domestically for theatrical distribution and suggests a robust new generation of moviegoers. Come through generation XYZ!
Oscar sneaked at CinemaCon, but did the Best Picture winner?
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” wowed for Warner Bros., but that was footage moviegoers saw in December (NATO members were on their seats though). It was the studio’s behind-the-scenes featurette for “Blade Runner 2049” which made awards watchers really take notice. Paramount had three unique players: Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” (Natalie Portman giving Best Actress nominee vibes and as a Scott Rudin production its an awards movie until its not), George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” (Julianne Moore and Matt Damon look fantastic) and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”(the most intriguing 10 minute sneak in memory). 20th Century Fox pushed the original musical “The Great Showman” with Hugh Jackman but the footage shown made it seem less epic than you’d expect (the songs were stellar, however). Amazon previewed contenders in “Wonderstruck” (look here) and “Last Flag Flying” while keeping Paul Thomas Anderson’s next top of mind. Focus Features pushed “Darkest Hour,” but the trailer didn’t blow us over. A number of major films weren’t even mentioned and distributors such as A24, Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company, Sony Classics and Open Road weren’t represented at the convention. That being said, there was a lot more prestige and Oscar contenting films on display than last year.
Why were these major titles barely mentioned or not at all?
Some highly anticipated or unique titles whose titles were not uttered by their studios during the four-day conference included James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” (WB is trying to sell it), “Sicario” follow-up “Soldado” (Lionsgate), “The Snowman” with Michael Fassbender (Universal), Doug Liman’s “American Made” (Universal), Shane Black’s “Predator” (20th Century Fox), Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” (Universal), Joseph Kosinski’s “Granite Mountain” (Lionsgate), any Fox Searchlight release by Fox or any DreamWorks Animation movie past their last Fox release, “Captain Underpants.” Granted, Universal bizarrely kept quiet on any of its releases past August, but the other titles, among others, were strangely absent.
Why did Warner Bros. not announce the Joss Whedon news?
The morning after Warner Bros. conducted a very successful presentation Variety reported that none other than Joss Whedon was on board to direct a new “Batgirl” movie. Granted, Whedon may not have signed on the dotted line yet, but why didn’t WB at least tease the news to theater owners? Or, why didn’t they just admit Whedon was developing the new standalone film? NATO members are very industry savvy and while they have had a profitable string with the latest DC Universe films they are quite aware they are have not reached the quality of Marvel Studios’ releases. What better way of getting them excited than dropping this surprising and exciting news during your showcase?