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At CinemaCon in Las Vegas, the future of the film industry reveals itself: Hollywood will keep going big – to keep you from going home

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Credit: Mariel KellyMariel Kelly

At CinemaCon, the future of the film industry was blindingly bright. The official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (that would be the unfortunate acronym NATO) is a four-day frenzy of self-promotion in which Hollywood lures the operators behind the world’s multiplexes, art houses and mom-and-pop one-screens to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, each party convincing the other that theirs is a business of growth and innovation.

To hear studio executives tell it, the scene is stronger than ever. Just look at the blockbusters on the horizon: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time; a sixth Mission: Impossible, starring an ever-harder-to-kill Tom Cruise; and Avengers: Infinity War, the superhero smorgasbord that last week earned the best opening weekend box office for any film released in any part of the world – ever.

Or witness the new technology that will reshape the moviegoing experience. There is 4DX (“the absolute cinema experience”) and ScreenX (“the world’s first multiprojection immersive cinematic platform”), CtrlMovie (“a novel interactive format to tell multi-optional stories”) and Noovie ARcade (“a revolutionary app that combines the big screen with augmented reality”).

The mood inside Caesars the other week was giddy, almost hallucinatory in its unrelenting desire for you to please enjoy the show. Everything, according to NATO and Hollywood and the celebrities trotted out to smile and wave (Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise, 87.5 per cent of the cast from Ocean’s 8), was going to be all right.

“The theatrical experience is still as powerful a draw as it has ever been – and will continue to be,” said Charles Rivkin, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

“It’s hard not to believe in the future of theatrical,” echoed John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO.

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John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, discusses movie releases from 2017 at CinemaCon 2018 on April 24, 2018.Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

Yet last year, theatre admissions in the United States and Canada fell 6 per cent from 2016, to 1.24 billion tickets sold – the lowest level since 1995. The summer box office – traditionally the industry’s most profitable stretch – had its worst season in 11 years. And this past week, NATO reported that the average cost for a domestic movie ticket for the first quarter of 2018 jumped 3.6 per cent from a year ago, to US$9.16, while business was down 2.8 per cent in that period. (In Canada specifically, the numbers tell a similar story: Cineplex, the country’s largest theatre operator, reported last week that attendance was down 9.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2018 compared with last year and that net income fell 33.7 per cent.)

Meanwhile, streaming giant Netflix and subscription service MoviePass are threatening Hollywood’s traditional ways of creating, distributing and consuming content. Audiences want their movies whenever they want, wherever they want and for however much they want to pay.

But at CinemaCon, everything appeared to be great – if the definition of greatness means a future increasingly devoid of original movies and vested in superheroes and easy-to-franchise intellectual property.

“We will be here next year and the next year and for years to come,” Fithian told the 6,000 attendees gathered inside Caesars’ massive Coliseum. “There has been a lot of hype about the next ‘disruption.’ VHS. DVD. Streaming. Shortened [theatrical] windows. Subscriptions and simultaneous release. Yet we never die but remain a strong business in the face of disruption everywhere else in the entertainment landscape.”

The iceberg of change is out there, though – and for four long days, Hollywood was content to rearrange its 4DX deck chairs.

Superheroes vs. bold-faced names

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Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra and Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story.Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd. / Walt Disney Studios

If CinemaCon offered constant reassurances to those who produce and exhibit movies, it delivered crushing discouragement to audiences hoping the current superhero and reboot-remake-revamp glut was nearing its end. The writing was on the wall during the conference’s opening night, when Sony Pictures unveiled its 2018 slate.

Through a series of unfortunate events, Sony has become patient zero for the larger problems ailing the industry. Once powered by stars Adam Sandler and Will Smith – whose movies between 2000 and 2015 grossed US$3.7-billion for the studio – Sony has stumbled in adapting to the industry arms race perfected by rival Disney: superheroes and franchises, not bold-faced names.

Although it was one of the first to invest in the big-budget comic-book arena with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Sony overextended the brand, rebooting Peter Parker to diminishing returns before having to enlist Disney’s Marvel Studios to course-correct the character with last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Now, with the studio having earned just US$374-million in profit in 2017 – a dip of 15 per cent from the previous year – and with the sting of 2014′s e-mail hack still lingering, Sony arrived at CinemaCon eager to prove it can deliver both mega-franchises and original content.

“We’re dedicated to the range of audience, including having a staunch and increasingly rare dedication to originality,” chairman Tom Rothman said. “We are not all superheroes all the time.”

That is true: There are only two superhero projects in Sony’s upcoming mix, both Spidey-related (Venom and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), but its other films don’t scream originality. Hotel Transylvania 3, Goosebumps 2, Equalizer 2, a second Sicario, a fourth Men in Black, remakes of Superfly and Miss Bala, a rebooted Lisbeth Salander thriller (actual line from the trailer: “A never-before-filmed story”) and a new Jumanji.

The only non-intellectual-property-spawned offerings were White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey, the Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy Holmes and Watson (which looked like a faded facsimile of the pair’s previous collaborations) and the self-explanatory A Dog’s Way Home. To be fair, Sony offered one final sop to the idea of originality: a last-minute tease of Quentin Tarantino’s Leonardo DiCaprio drama, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But that film has yet to shoot a single frame of footage.

Sony’s presentation – seemingly well received by theatre owners, though they may have been hypnotized by the gigantic Venom ice sculpture at the dizzying after-party – set the template for the rest of week.

Audiences have proved time and again that they will turn up to the theatre to enjoy original visions crafted with care – think last year’s Baby Driver, Get Out or Dunkirk – but those are risks, and risks make studios nervous. Better, the thinking seems to be, to go with warmed-over comfort food, which at least has a precedent of turning a profit.

That is why Universal went big on a new Jurassic Park, a rebooted Halloween, a Mamma Mia! sequel, a second Minions movie, a third How to Train Your Dragon, a fourth Purge film in almost as many years and a new Grinch cartoon (which Illumination Entertainment chief executive Chris Meledandri said will “for the very first time reveal the origin story of the Grinch,” thereby presumably erasing all knowledge of Ron Howard’s 2000 film).

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Jason Momoa in Aquaman.Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. kept to the superhero theme with its DC properties (Aquaman, Shazam), despite mounting evidence that audiences mostly only care about Marvel superheroes. There will be another live-action Jungle Book (Mowgli, two years removed from Disney’s own reboot), another giant-shark movie (The Meg) and the second prequel to the eight-film Harry Potter franchise (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald).

Despite having just been pilloried for unnecessary sequels such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Paramount also doubled down on a future of familiarity: A new Terminator, the aforementioned sixth Mission: Impossible, a third G.I. Joe, a rebooted Dungeons & Dragons, a Top Gun sequel, a sequel to A Quiet Place and a Transformers prequel.

It was just within the past year that Paramount released such audacious fare as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. This fall’s big Paramount release: Untitled Tyler Perry Movie.

Only 20th Century Fox offered a semblance of imagination with its dark and mostly original films, including Steve McQueen’s heist film Widows, the thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, the Black Lives Matter drama The Hate U Give and the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Even its obligatory franchises looked sharp, including the wise-ass Deadpool 2 and Shane Black’s wild-looking Predator reboot.

“We put our chips on vision,” said Stacey Snider, chair and CEO of Fox. “We took chances, pushed boundaries and forged the future of the film business. … Going forward, let’s stay committed to the vision of cinema. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves and aim to please.”

Snider may not get that chance, though: By this time next year, Fox will likely be swallowed whole by Disney thanks to an in-motion US$52.4-billion merger.

Speaking of the Mouse House, it is destined to dominate the 2018 box office like no other studio. This year alone, it has Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Incredibles 2, a Mary Poppins sequel, a Wreck-It Ralph sequel, an Ant-Man sequel and a live-action Winnie the Pooh film. Disney is so overloaded with name-brand franchises that it only offered a single 2018 film that is not a sequel or remake: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, hardly an original concept.

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Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Isabella Sermon in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.Photo Credit: Universal Studios/Universal Studios

To compete, other studios may have to plunge further into the depths of whatever intellectual property they control.

“I tire of this notion that people are sick of sequels and non-original IP. Sequels are not inherently bad – bad movies are bad,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. “But when you rely too heavily on one particular movie type or genre, or if one movie has to carry the whole box office and everything else becomes a loss leader, that’s not a good way to do business.”

By the time CinemaCon’s third day rolled around, the sameness of the slates overwhelmed. There were exceptions (Warner’s Crazy Rich Asians, Universal’s Neil Armstrong drama First Man), but they felt dwarfed by the rule of franchises. Smaller studios such as STX, Lionsgate, Focus and Amazon tried to counterprogram with auteur-driven content (new Gus Van Sant, Mimi Leder and Mike Leigh films), but together those companies hold barely half the market share that Disney had (21.8 per cent) in 2017.

What was a constant, no matter the studio size, was the emphasis on how movies could only – must only – be enjoyed on the big screen.

“Movie theatres,” Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski said,” are magical places.”

“The magic begins with what’s on screen,” echoed Peter Levinsohn, president of Universal.

“I remember my first time going to the Trans-Lux theatre in New York by myself as a kid, and it was one of the most freeing experiences I ever had,” recalled Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner. “Except, I wasn’t alone. I was sharing laughter, thrills and chills with everyone around me. Like everyone, I know that movies are best experienced communally.”

‘Feel like you’re inside the movie’

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The seats inside Cineplex's 4DX theatre at the Yonge and Dundas multiplex in Toronto move and vibrate.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

If the nostalgic waxing of executives cannot convince theatre owners to keep investing in Hollywood’s wares, though, perhaps rumble-butt seats will do the trick.

On CinemaCon’s trade floor, hopes were high that myriad Smell-O-Vision-style bells and whistles could lure wayward audiences back inside the multiplex.

The most buzzed-about innovation was 4DX with ScreenX, from Seoul-based company CJ 4DPLEX. A 4DX with ScreenX theatre includes a three-sided screen, seats that swivel and sway and dip and rumble and roll along with the on-screen action, plus “environmental effects” that range from bursts of fog and water to quick flashes of heat.

“Our goal is to bring customers back to the theatre with a moviegoing experience you just can’t replicate at home,” said Yohan Song, the company’s senior manager of strategic initiatives. “We will make you feel like you’re inside the movie.”

CJ 4DPLEX’s 4DX system – a sort of beginner model of ScreenX – has one Canadian location inside Cineplex’s Yonge-Dundas theatre in Toronto. Price of admission: $25.

“People want that differentiating experience, the best experience,” said Ellis Jacob, CEO of Cineplex, who said 4DX was “performing extremely well” and that the company is evaluating options for bringing the combined ScreenX/4DX experience to Canada (the cost for a ScreenX ticket is around $4 on top of a regular ticket, with 4DX typically an $8 surcharge).

But other initiatives risk costing more, in terms of potentially driving away consumers frustrated with the modern moviegoing experience.

CtrlMovie, for instance, allows audience members to vote on the outcome of scenes with their smartphones while the film is playing – an appeal to the youth market, but a thumb in the eye of moviegoers already weary of illuminated smartphone screens in the dark of a theatre.

There is also the possibility of traditional projection screens being replaced with LED screens – “Many of the studios think this is the best thing since sliced bread,” NATO’s Fithian said – although it is debatable whether audiences will pay to watch what is essentially a large television screen.

If innovation is necessary, it can also be terrifying. Last year, CinemaCon attendees fretted about premium video-on-demand – that is, shortening the time movies would play in theatres before being offered for at-home viewing for upward of $50 a screening. That conversation appears to have quieted – replaced by panic over subscription services such as MoviePass.

That name was uttered in Vegas with an almost Voldemort-level of dread – exactly zero studio executives referred to it directly during their presentations, while Fithian and the MPAA’s Rivkin avoided name-checking it in interviews, citing antitrust rules.

Yet the company has been making huge waves over the past few months, offering subscribers the chance to see multiple movies a month for less than the cost of a single ticket. Industry leaders have expressed skepticism about its business model – “Every day at CinemaCon I was hearing about what seemed to be a change in policy,” Cineplex’s Jacob said – although MoviePass parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. acquired Moviefone last month, suggesting a long-term strategy focused on user data. (MoviePass is not currently available in Canada.)

“We’ll see more experiments with dynamic pricing, more experiments with subscriptions,” Fithian said. “But we have three concerns about the concept of the subscription model: sustainability, accuracy in its data and the privacy of that information.”

While many at CinemaCon could barely say “MoviePass,” another industry player was on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Saudi Arabia, which last month opened its first movie theatre in more than three decades. With 30 million citizens, who spend US$30-billion on travel and leisure outside the country each year, the Middle Eastern country has the potential to be the new China – a previously off-limits territory filled with audiences hungry for Hollywood content, particularly franchises with universal appeal. Riyadh’s first screening was not a recent Oscar winner or prestige drama, but Disney’s Black Panther.

No matter what inroads Hollywood makes into Saudi Arabia, though, the global threat of Netflix looms large – even if many at CinemaCon dismissed the streaming giant. (While, at the same time, Disney stayed silent on the matter as it prepares to launch its own streaming service in 2019.)

“I think Netflix is disrupting the television business,” Fithian said of the company, which had no presence at the conference. “The fact that Netflix is making 80 movies a year is astounding because no one knows what any of those 80 movies are.”

Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution for Focus Features, put it more bluntly: Netflix had “raised the bar – and not to a healthy level. It’s nonsensical, and I don’t think it’s the best thing for the public.”

On the final night of CinemaCon, my head dizzy from four days of spin and glitz, I did something perhaps unexpected: I went to see a movie. Before an 11 p.m. screening of (what else?) Avengers: Infinity War at a local multiplex, a short ad played on the screen. It was for The Week Of, a ho-hum families-clash comedy that offered no trace of IP or sequel possibilities.

The audience reacted to it the way they would to any decently cut trailer, but were especially receptive once it was revealed that the film stars Adam Sandler, former clown prince of Sony, and would debut later that week – on Netflix.

“In the end,” NATO’s Fithian declared at the start of CinemaCon, “the customer always decides.”

Sooner or later, Hollywood just might realize that.

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Mariel Kelly

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story quoted Yohan Song saying 4DX with ScreenX might cost upward of $100 a ticket, but a spokesman for the company later said that, in fact, the price of a ScreenX ticket is around $4 on top of a regular ticket, with 4DX typically an $8 surcharge. This version has been corrected.

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