Every spring, Hollywood’s mightiest studio executives undertake an unusual rite of passage: They throw themselves in front of 6,000 people and desperately beg for approval.
The ritual takes place at CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners in Las Vegas, where the film industry’s players vie to impress the thousands of exhibitors upon whose screens they depend upon. Studio fortunes naturally shift from year to year, and this year’s CinemaCon featured a record-breaking 11 distributors vying to one-up each other at Caesars Palace, each eager to prove that only they could save the ever-tumultuous industry.
With the 2018 edition of CinemaCon now in the books – and exhibitors heading home to their theatres across the world, no better off in the fight against disruptive forces such as Netflix and MoviePass – here’s The Globe and Mail’s grading of which industry giants came out swinging, and which whiffed.
Universal (Grade: A+)
Universal could have insulted CinemaCon attendees for two hours straight and served them cold coffee and one-size-too-small swag, and it would have still won CinemaCon thanks to a late-show casting coup: Cher. To celebrate its upcoming Mamma Mia! sequel (non-ironically subtitled Here We Go Again), Universal brought out the forever-queen of pop to sing Abba’s Fernando, complete with an elaborate set, backup dancers and a mic-drop flood of balloons.
Oh, and Universal’s slate was pretty decent, too, with obvious blockbusters like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World, but also potentially game-changing original properties like Damien Chazelle’s highly stylized NASA drama First Man, starring his La La Land leading man Ryan Gosling. Even its reboots and remakes seemed half-inspired, such as a genuinely frightening trailer for David Gordon Green’s stab at Halloween (which erases the continuity, or lack thereof, of every Halloween film after the first one), and a curious look at M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable sequel Glass, which combines the mythology of last year’s surprise hit Split.
The best news: not a word about the studio’s attempt at establishing a “Dark Universe” of interconnected monster movies, a plan that seems permanently off the table after Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot prematurely died. Oh, wait, that wasn’t the best news: Cher was there. Did I mention Cher was there? Well, she was. And she was spectacular.
Warner Bros. (Grade: A-)
Perhaps benefiting from the disappointing performances from Disney and Sony immediately beforehand, Warner Bros.’ CinemaCon presentation felt like a comparative burst of energy. Critically, it swapped out flat behind-the-scenes executive speakers for the far more charismatic Will Arnett (the studio’s erstwhile Lego Batman), who led the proceedings with a winking grin and wry attitude.
It also helped that Warner’s slate looked better than expected, given the studio’s recent slips with its DC films. Crazy Rich Asians, for instance, is the first major studio film in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast and looks to be a huge crowd-pleaser. Ocean’s 8 seems as glitzy and fun as its George Clooney-led predecessors, and delivered a wealth of talent to the Caesars Palace stage. And Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, a remake of A Star Is Born co-starring Lady Gaga, unveiled a sharp, hard-hitting trailer that immediately launched the film into the awards conversation.
Hell, even Warner’s DC effort Aquaman seems impressive in its world-building (giant sea horses versus giant sharks!) – even though its trailer was filled with half-finished visual effects and temp shots.
20th Century Fox (Grade: B+)
Although it preceded presentations from both Amazon Studios and Lionsgate, the last truly big and splashy push of CinemaCon came from 20th Century Fox. It was an event that felt both celebratory and defiant, given that this might be the last time Fox, in the form audiences and exhibitors recognize, appears before it’s swallowed whole via a US$52.4-billion Disney merger.
“Going forward, let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves, let’s take meaningful steps to ensure that people still come together to see things they’ve never seen before – and let’s share the humanity that we’re more alike than different,” said Stacey Snider, CEO of the studio, in a speech tinged with melancholy.
To Fox’s credit, it appears that its upcoming slate sticks close to Snider’s mission statement. There are the expected franchise products – with Deadpool 2 getting a huge push, complete with a chorus line and a video message featuring Ryan Reynolds and his X-Men universe frenemy Hugh Jackman – but there were more than a few welcome, somewhat original surprises, too.
In quick succession, Fox unveiled startling and riveting trailers for Steve McQueen’s upcoming heist drama Widows, starring Viola Davis; Drew Goddard’s horror-crime mashup Bad Times at the El Royale; and the affecting social-justice drama The Hate U Give, starring YA superstar Amandla Stenberg. Even the studio’s intellectual property mix looked impressive, with Shane Black’s The Predator reboot delivering a sharp mix of comedy and thriller, and the aforementioned Deadpool 2 destined to become one of the year’s biggest commercial hits.
Snider and company found a perfect, albeit oddly sad, ending by highlighting footage from the upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. After having star Rami Malek come out to debut a propulsive, heavily soundtracked trailer, Fox closed things off with a marching-band rendition of We Are the Champions – a triumphant, if defiant, nod that it was not set to be completely subsumed by the Disney machine. Best of luck to them.
Amazon Studios (Grade: B)
Why was Amazon invited to CinemaCon for a third time, while fellow streaming giant Netflix has been forever shunned? An Amazon banner hanging outside its presentation hall at Caesars Palace answered that question quickly, with the words “Distributing Directly to Theatres” literally highlighted in the company’s signature orange. Simply put: Amazon respects the theatrical market – offering its movies to bricks-and-mortar theatres for the traditional 90 days before they become available to stream – while Netflix sticks to its day-and-date policy, meaning that its films become available to its 100 million or so global subscribers the exact same time any theatre should chose to screen them. (Few do.)
A year ago, Amazon was seen as the saviour of Hollywood, heavily investing in the low- to mid-budget dramas that the major studios have been inching away from. Think of Manchester By the Sea, You Were Never Really Here, and The Big Sick. (Amazon Studios is only now delving into distribution in the U.S., preferring to so far partner with smaller outfits like Elevation Pictures and Mongrel Media in Canada.)
This year’s upcoming slate reaffirms that quality-over-comfort mission – its lineup is extremely auteur-friendly. There are new films from Gus Van Sant (Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot), Mike Leigh (the historical drama Peterloo), Marjane Satrapri (the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive), Luca Guadagnino (a truly gross-looking remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria), and even a documentary (Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth, which left some in the audience gasping, even though it featured footage of the Vegas strip right outside the luncheon).
While the presentation itself lacked the slickness of big-studio presentations – that happens when it’s held over the lunch hour, and relied on a glitchy Skype interview with Beautiful Boy star Timothée Chalamet, plus a hilariously ill-timed clip from the gruesome Suspiria – it confirmed the studio’s commitment to original projects devoid of easy-money intellectual property. Until Alexa tells us otherwise, there’s good reason to be bullish on Amazon’s future in the film business.
Disney (Grade: B)
Disney is the current king of the box office, with a whopping 21.8 per cent market share in 2017 – and it will likely be 2018′s global champion, too, thanks to its death grip on the Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar brands. But the Mouse House just couldn’t muster up much energy for its CinemaCon presentation, perhaps knowing it doesn’t have to try all that hard.
Attendees got a decent amount of new footage – about 10 minutes from The Incredibles 2, the opening of Avengers: Infinity Wars, an extended scene from Solo: A Star Wars Story – but there was little in the way of industry-shaking revelations, or title announcements, or surprise guests. The audience did get excited for proof-of-concept footage of Jon Favreau’s sorta-live-action remake of The Lion King, and a legitimately hilarious scene from the Wreck-It Ralph sequel – but those clips have been previously shown at industry conventions or to select media members.
Focus Features (Grade: B-)
Coming off one of its stronger years, the Universal-owned Focus was high on celebrating recent Oscar successes Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread – attendees at its CinemaCon luncheon even got a Blu-ray of the former, while the Johnny Greenwood soundtrack of the latter flooded the giant Octavius ballroom inside Caesars.
Yet Focus’s 2018 slate didn’t sing as well as the studio’s recent scores. Perhaps this was due to the overly stretched presentation structure, which found moderator Dave Karger going too long and too shallow with transparent Q&A talent sessions. Matters worked best when focusing on, well, what Focus does: making smart, mid-budget, just-commercial-enough prestige pictures. Mary Queen of Scots starring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan, Joel Edgerton’s family drama Boy Erased, and the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? all appear locks for the eventual Oscar race, while Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman seems like the director’s funniest work in decades, if ever.
Matters are less clear for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, whose trailer showcased a solid Felicity Jones performance but extremely on-the-nose dialogue, while a Johnny English sequel felt as fresh an idea as the bagel I enjoyed earlier at my discount breakfast buffet.
Paramount (Grade: A+ for Tom Cruise, C+ for everything else)
Going into CinemaCon, Paramount faced one of the biggest uphill battles in recent Hollywood memory: In 2017, it was the only major studio with a loss in profits, to the tune of US$230-million in the red. Yet newly installed chairman Jim Gianopulos came to Las Vegas ready to acknowledge the flops he inherited (Downsizing, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel) along with a promise of a better tomorrow.
“It’s no secret that we’ve had some difficult years,” the former 20th Century Fox chief known as “Gentleman Jim” told attendees, “but we’re laying the foundation to deliver films for every possible audience for years to come.”
Looking at the surface of Paramount’s upcoming slate, that appears to be true: There are obligatory sequels (a follow-up to John Krasinski’s surprise hit A Quiet Place is coming), crass comedies (Johnny Knoxville’s Action Point), mature-audience-skewing dramedies (the Jane Fonda-led Book Club), and family-skewed offerings (Mark Wahlberg’s adoption dramedy Instant Family).
Yet Gianopulos, like most every studio chief, has a big franchise game in mind for the near future, and it contains some of the most depressing intellectual property to meet the development pipeline: the Hasbro toy brand. In addition to the upcoming Transformers prequel Bumblebee (which looks tolerable, but only compared to Michael Bay’s last atrocious film, Transformers: The Last Knight), there’s a new G.I. Joe film in the works, a Micronauts movie and a Dungeons & Dragons reboot.
This strategy is all the more dispiriting given that Paramount appears to have completely distanced itself from the high-end risks it took under the Brad Grey era, such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and Alex Garland’s’ Annihilation. Those movies didn’t set the box office on fire – far from it – but they were some of the most original and bracing big-studio films in recent memory.
Still, Paramount does have one death-defying ace up its sleeve: Tom Cruise. The superstar arrived at the Vegas presentation with his Mission: Impossible - Fallout cast and director Christopher McQuarrie in tow, and quickly brought the house down. Spending nearly 40 minutes dissecting an insane-even-for-Cruise stunt from his new Ethan Hunt film before showing an extended, heart-pounding clip, the star proved his charisma and passion are still unmatched. Unfortunately, that enigmatic persona will next be put to work for Paramount in, of all things, a Top Gun sequel. Off to the danger zone, then.
STX Entertainment (Grade: C+)
STX may be many things – scrappy, wild, unpredictable in the not-always-best-sense – but it is never, ever comfortable. The three-year studio was built on a model of selling mid-budget films based on star power, not familiar franchises, and it’s tripped over itself (Hardcore Henry, Gringo, The Space Between Us) as much as it’s gone the distance (Molly’s Game, Their Finest, The Foreigner).
So although its CinemaCon presentation seems, on the surface, weak and weird in all the wrong ways, chairman Adam Fogelson and his team must be commended for offering a 2018 slate completely absent sequels, reboots or remakes. It is just that what STX considers original properties aren’t that, well, original. There’s the Shailene Woodley high-sea adventure Adrift, which seems like White Squall crossed with All Is Lost (yet not nearly as exciting as that sounds), and there’s the truly silly-looking Peppermint, with Jennifer Garner as a suburban mom-done-wrong who embarks on a Death Wish-style misadventure.
Even STX’s trump card, a bluntly R-rated puppet adventure called The Happytime Murders, seems like a facsimile of a half-dozen better ideas (in this case, everything from Greg the Bunny to the Canadian series Puppets Who Kill). Still, STX gets points for trying to navigate an industry hell-bent on everything it stands against.
Sony (Grade: C)
Sony feels like a studio just on the edge of greatness, yet always somehow missing the mark. This year, chairman Tom Rothman championed a seemingly contradictory mission statement, heralding both Sony’s commitment to intellectual property and its commitment to originality. Unfortunately, it seems that the studio is, like everyone else, deeply entrenched in the franchise game, to the point of being disinterested in anything else.
Sony’s upcoming Miss Bala, for instance, is Catherine Hardwicke’s remake of the Mexican film of the same name, and stars Gina Rodriguez and Anthony Mackie – a strong and diverse lineup of talent. Yet the Miss Bala trailer screened for attendees seemed alternately unfocused and silly. The same could be said of Superfly, helmed by Canadian filmmaker and Drake BFF Director X. These missteps might be forgivable, if Rothman and Co. had a handful of sure-thing franchise bets up their sleeves.
Yet the much-hyped Tom Hardy project Venom (a Spider-Man movie without Spider-Man) felt flat, and Hotel Transylvania 3 and The Girl in the Spider’s Web just didn’t pop off the screen. Nor did Rothman’s attempts at ribbing the competition – he equated Wonder Woman to a Powerpuff Girl – which came off as more sour grapes than anything else.
At least Rothman had an ace up his sleeve for the presentation’s finale, bringing out Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio for a surprise bit of promotion for their forthcoming collaboration Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That movie, though, has yet to film a single frame.
Lionsgate (Grade: C-)
Lionsgate had the unenviable task of closing out CinemaCon’s four-day marathon – and by the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, it was clear that a good chunk of attendees had fled home, or decided to rehab by the pool. Not that Lionsgate’s offerings much helped its cause – the studio’s slate felt oddly familiar (the Gerard Butler submarine drama Hunter Killer) or simply off-putting (Hell Fest, Kin).
As for tentpoles, the company briefly intrigued with its plans for The Kingkiller Chronicle from director Sam Raimi and multihyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda, but footage from a new Robin Hood was dismal. The desire to launch a new Nottingham-centric film into franchise territory felt particularly desperate given that Lionsgate has failed to mine easily exploitable brands. Last year’s attempt at jumpstarting a Power Rangers cinematic universe collapsed almost immediately, while its Divergent series has fallen apart mid-run, and Hunger Games is long over.
Only the Mila Kunis-Kate McKinnon vehicle The Spy Who Dumped Me seems bare-bones entertaining, but even then its footage felt hobbled by easy comparisons to the gets-only-better-with-time Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. As for Oscar contenders à la past Lionsgate title La La Land? Maybe the studio will have better luck in 2019.
Entertainment Studios (Grade: D)
Byron Allen’s upstart Entertainment Studios came to CinemaCon with something to prove – and wouldn’t let attendees forget that fact. The nascent company, part of Allen’s media conglomerate that now includes the Weather Channel, had a surprise hit last year with the low-budget deep-sea thriller 47 Metres Down (US$44-million in North America), which was destined for the direct-to-DVD bin before Allen rescued it from the Weinstein brothers. But since that success story, Entertainment Studios has struggled in its bid to become a major player, stumbling with Christian Bale’s would-be Oscar bait Hostiles, and the recent low-buzz Ted Kennedy drama Chappaquiddick. (The company does not yet have a presence in Canada, with local outfits like D Films and Entertainment One distributing its wares so far north of the border.)
To that end, Allen spent most of his CinemaCon presentation – held in the Palace ballroom at Caesars instead of the many-times larger Colosseum auditorium, where the major studios presented their slates all week – both pumping up his own creation myth and bemoaning the way his company has been dismissed by competitors.
“I don’t like the whispers and the conversations from studios who want to reduce your window,” Allen told exhibitors, who have lately been concerned that major studios want to shorten the number of days it takes from a movie premiering on the big screen to hitting the home entertainment market. “That’s unacceptable, and I’m here to fight for it and defend it. Let’s not talk 90 days – how about 120 days?”
It was an ambitious speech, and occasionally funny (no surprise given Allen’s background in stand-up comedy), but only briefly touched on Entertainment Studio’s actual slate. That’s not too surprising given how underwhelming and generic it seems, from the animated film Animal Crackers (a wan-looking Over the Hedge facsimile), to a ho-hum Keanu Reeves sci-fi/horror flick called Replicas, to a sequel to 47 Metres Down (title: 48 Metres Down).
Competition is always appreciated in the increasingly conglomerate-ized studio landscape, but Entertainment Studios seems a while off still from finding its footing in the ecosystem.