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National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian said that he is 'very confident that in the short future we’re going to be at 2019 numbers. We need to get consumers used to the normal cadence of movies being released theatrically.'Greg Doherty/Getty Images

Good news: movie theatres are back. How do I know? Because Rolando Rodriguez, the chief executive of Marcus Theatres and chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO; yes they’re aware of the acronym), was onstage in Las Vegas last week chanting, “We are back! We are back! We are back!” to an audience of 3,000 cinema operators. “We are back! We are back! We are back!” the crowd roared in reply.

The theatre owners – from executives of giants such as AMC, Cineworld and Canada’s Cineplex to mom-and-pop operators of one-screen drive-ins – were assembled in the depths of Caesars Palace for CinemaCon, an annual four-day frenzy of film-industry fantasy hosted by NATO and jammed this year with special Hollywood guests stars Dwayne Johnson, Keanu Reeves and Rachel McAdams.

The first true CinemaCon in two years – 2020′s event was scuttled due to you-know-what, and 2021 was a skeleton edition held during the height of Delta – was a fist-pumping affair. Studios promising a wealth of theatre-only titles after two years of sending their wares straight to digital release, and exhibitors clinging to the hope that Tom Cruise and Doctor Strange will save their businesses from the brink.

Inside the CinemaCon bubble – a mask-free paradise that smelled of complimentary red wine, second-hand cigarette smoke and nacho cheese – the future was marquee-light bright with the kind of popcorn-ganda that is hard to resist.

“Theatrical will always be the cornerstone of our business,” Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley said. “A movie is only a movie when it’s seen in a movie theatre,” declared Lionsgate’s Joe Drake. “All of these movies share one thing in common: they were all made for and can only be fully experienced on your big screens first,” said Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich, whose studio infamously spent 2021 sending its titles including Dune and The Matrix Resurrections to HBO Max the same day they hit theatres.

Witnessing half a dozen studios unveil their most promising movies – superheroes for sure, but also shoot-’em-ups (John Wick: Chapter 4), prestige dramas (the #MeToo journalism thriller She Said), cartoons (so many Minions), old-school rom-coms (the George Clooney/Julia Roberts charmer Ticket to Paradise), new-school queer rom-coms (Billy Eichener’s Bros), and even gross-out Canadian body-horror (you haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed Crimes of the Future director David Cronenberg confront a 9:30 a.m. Vegas crowd with a clip of Léa Seydoux sticking her tongue down a gash in Viggo Mortensen’s chest) – was dazzling, dizzying, discombobulating.

At its best moments – like during the world premiere of the rip-roaring Top Gun: Maverick, which features Cruise at his most charmingly unhinged – CinemaCon felt like a genuine return to film-industry normalcy. Look: it’s Jurassic World Dominion star Jeff Goldblum circulating among Nobu sushi platters. And over there are the two most powerful frenemies in the movie theatre world, hugging by the shrimp cocktail platter inside the Palm restaurant. As actress/comedian Aisha Tyler said during the Warner Bros. presentation: “Welcome back to the Before Times, which are now the After Times.”

Among CinemaCon's best moments was the world premiere of the rip-roaring Top Gun: Maverick, which features Tom Cruise at his most charmingly unhinged.Paramount Pictures/Paramount Pictures

The only problem is that during the spell between “Before” and “After,” audiences got awfully used to the idea of staying home, where the latest, hottest films had suddenly become available at reasonable expense.

“We’re back! We’re back! We’re back!” chanted Rodriguez. But someone might want to ask moviegoers if they feel the same. And it will take all of the film industry’s power to avoid eating itself alive in the meantime.

The timing of CinemaCon, though, couldn’t have been better. Just a few days before the conference opened, Netflix’s stock crashed with the news that it lost subscribers for the first time in a decade. Then new Warner Bros. Discovery chairman David Zaslav admitted that the company’s plan to send its movies to HBO Max the same day they hit theatres was a misstep. “Data is starting to show that when you open a movie in the theatres, it has a whole stream of monetization. … It’s marketed and it builds a brand.” And Paramount Pictures, which spent much of its pandemic selling off movies to Prime Video, was celebrating the second straight weekend of box-office success for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. (Remember when Hollywood’s biggest concern was once whether Sonic’s teeth looked too weird?)

Still, you didn’t have to squint to see the cracks in the CinemaCon foundation. Global box office for 2021 was only half of 2019′s record-breaking haul of US$42.5-billion. As for 2022, Gower Street Analytics is projecting that the industry will still come up US$9.3-billion short compared to 2019. And there is that infamous study from the Quorum/Fanthropology in November, which found that eight per cent of pre-pandemic moviegoers might be “lost forever.”

Of course, consumer habits can bounce back – a study from that same Quorum/Fanthropology team last month reported that the general public’s willingness to return to theatres is significantly rising – and we could be on the cusp of a new Spider-Man: No Way Home-sized hit when James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of the Water premieres this December.

“Are we in a normal phase? What does normal mean? We’re certainly in a resurgence phase, and a rebuilding phase,” NATO president John Fithian said during an interview. “I am very confident that in the short future we’re going to be at 2019 numbers. We need to get consumers used to the normal cadence of movies being released theatrically.”

From left: Sam Neill, Isabella Sermon, and Chris Pratt star in Jurassic World Dominion, co-written and directed by Colin Trevorrow.John Wilson/Universal Pictures

But at the same time, there was a sleight-of-hand act being performed inside Caesars.

“Don’t you know you’re dead? Can’t you read? You’re finished!” Sony Pictures chair Tom Rothman faux-mocked the crowd to wild applause – neglecting to mention how Sony continues to sell its non-franchise fare to Netflix (including the Kevin Hart/Woody Harrelson action-comedy The Man from Toronto). Similarly, Disney’s presentation was careful to exclude the word “Disney+” – Encanto got a shout-out, but the straight-to-streaming Turning Red was panda non grata. Paramount, meanwhile, made sure not to remind theatre owners about Paramount+. And for all the talk from Universal executives like Lisa Bunnell about the magic of moviegoing (“We care about putting movies in your theatres”), five days later the studio announced that it was sending three films straight to its parent company’s streamer, Peacock.

No matter how many can’t-miss titles are sent to multiplexes, audiences just might not show up for anyone not named Peter Parker. For every intellectual property-free title that has broken out at the box office this year (A24′s Everything Everywhere All At Once) there are high-profile smacks of reality (Michael Bay’s action movie Ambulance, the Viking epic The Northman). If the box office doesn’t pick up – if, Eywa forbid, the new Avatar flops – how long will studios stick to their renewed devotion to theatres? And how long can exhibitors afford to be patient?

According to NATO, roughly 800 screens have closed in North America since March, 2020, about two per cent of the territory’s 41,000. That is not calamitous given initial pandemic fears, and NATO’s Fithian is careful to note that the closures are “not necessarily permanent.” But it is far from a comforting figure, especially given that many small U.S. cinemas have survived partially thanks to the federal government’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which is expiring this month.

Meanwhile, Netflix may have shed subscribers, but Disney+ added 11.8 million new members last quarter, HBO Max/HBO picked up three million combined, and Paramount+ just added 6.8 million. Theatre owners and executives are not incorrect: the economics of streaming have yet to make long-term financial sense. But that doesn’t mean a future of theatre exclusivity is the one true answer, either.

“It’s not rocket science,” Fithian said, “more movies result in more box office.”

In the Before Times, that made sense. But in these After Times – which some audiences feel are still in fact the Pandemic Times – convincing everyone to step back inside a cinema is easier chanted than done.

“We are back! We are back! We are back!” Not yet, Rolando. Not yet.

CinemaCon By the Numbers

Six: Number of Spider-Man or Spidey-adjacent films presented during Sony’s CinemaCon slate: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, Kraven the Hunter, Madame Web, El Muerto, Venom 3.

Ten: Number of years’ worth of films that Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced he is preparing.

Infinite: Possible number of different formats that James Cameron is preparing to release Avatar: The Way of Water, including IMAX, 3-D, premium-large format, variable frames-per-second rates, 160 languages, etc.

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