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Film The terror of MoviePass and the beauty of Lady Gaga: Five lessons from this year’s CinemaCon

John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, discusses movie releases from 2017 at CinemaCon 2018 on April 24, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

Each spring, roughly 6,000 film exhibitors, studio executives, journalists and contractually-obligated-to-appear celebrities make their way to Las Vegas for CinemaCon. The official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (that’d be “NATO” – but they had the name first, they’re quick to remind) is a four-day frenzy of self-promotion and fevered reassurances, a glitzy sop to movie theatres across the world that Hollywood is going to take care of them just fine.

The week-long celebration, which kicked off this past Monday, arrives just as the film industry is undergoing all manner of disruptive change, from the rise of streaming giants to the glut of bloated franchise fare to the insurgence of the dreaded and little-understood discount ticket service MoviePass. As this year’s CinemaCon hits its midway point, The Globe and Mail presents five key lessons from this year’s star-powered – but tense – convention.

NEVER ASK IF THE MOVIE BUSINESS IS SUFFERING

Despite this past summer’s movie season going down as the worst-performing stretch in a decade, despite domestic movie theatre attendance hitting a 25-year low, despite Netflix continuing its campaign against the theatrical experience, despite … well, you get the idea. The theatrical market is in the midst of a landscape-rattling era with the serious potential for devastation. Not that you’d hear any concern from NATO.

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“There has been a lot of hype about the next ‘disruption.’ VHS. DVD. Streaming. Shortened windows. PVOD. Subscriptions and simultaneous release. Yet we never die but remain a strong business in the face of disruption everywhere else in the entertainment landscape,” NATO president John Fithian told the CinemaCon crowd in his opening address. “The word ‘disruption’ is thrown around way too much. Nothing needs to be disrupted when it comes to the basic goal of our industry: bringing people together to share a communal experience.”

NOBODY UNDERSTANDS MOVIEPASS, AND NOBODY WANTS TO

Speaking of disruption, the hottest topic at CinemaCon – and uttered with an almost Voldermort-like sense of dread – was MoviePass. The upstart monthly subscription service (which is not yet available in Canada), offers consumers the opportunity to see one movie per day for as low as $6.95 (U.S.) per month – a price point often lower than the cost of a single ticket. MoviePass pays theatre owners the difference in cost, which means it risks burning through cash fast, though its business plan hints at earning revenue from mining subscriber data.

The service is like the bitcoin of the movie industry – no one seems to know how it works and most everyone is terrified of it. NATO’s Fithian and Charles Rivkin, the newly installed chairman-CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, avoided uttering MoviePass’s name both during prepared remarks and during an interview session with media, while studio executives steadfastly ignored the topic altogether. Yet outside the convention halls, MoviePass was all anyone could talk about.

THE FRANCHISE GAME ISN’T GOING AWAY ANY TIME SOON

If there was one constant at CinemaCon – besides the “everything-is-going-great” mentality pushed to theatre-owners by NATO and studios alike – it was that the franchise game isn’t going away any time soon. Hollywood’s major players all pushed their intellectual property to the brink, with Warner Bros.’ Aquaman and Sony’s Venom getting particularly hard sells. Disney’s presentation, meanwhile, offered just one upcoming title that wasn’t officially a sequel or remake – The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, hardly an original concept itself.

STAR POWER STILL MATTERS, WITH SOME STRINGS ATTACHED

Trailers and clips for hopeful franchise behemoths Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War generated enthusiastic responses from CinemaCon attendees. yet the strongest reception was reserved for two performers with no superheroes or space adventures in their future: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. The two headline Cooper’s forthcoming directorial debut, A Star Is Born, for Warner Bros., and while, yes, the drama is indeed a remake, it’s not as if Frank Pierson’s 1976 film is an intellectual property goldmine. Slipped in between visual-effects-driven sequels and crass cinematic-universe extensions, the idea of simply watching two ultra-charismatic performers bounce off one another in a handsomely produced drama seems a refreshing, if not close to revolutionary, idea.

THE INDUSTRY’S MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE HAS YET TO FILM A SINGLE FRAME

Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio speak onstage at CinemaCon on April 23, 2018 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Sony Pictures kicked off CinemaCon Monday night buzzing off the recent news that its box-office catnip Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is now the studio’s highest-grossing film of all time ($950-million worldwide). Naturally, studio chief Tom Rothman announced a sequel for the winter of 2019 (no word as to whether it will be called Juman3i or Jumanj3, but there’s a free idea for you, Sony) – all while pumping up the studio’s forthcoming franchises (the Spider-Man-adjacent Venom), remakes (Miss Bala), and sequels (Sicario: Day of the Soldado).

Yet in a surprise move, Rothman closed out Sony’s presentation slate by spotlighting a truly original production: Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Bringing both Tarantino and his leading man Leonardo DiCaprio to the CinemaCon stage, Rothman seemed genuinely thrilled at the prospect of releasing a movie that had no intellectual property or exploitable opportunities attached, and exhibitors in attendance followed suit.

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Still, Tarantino’s drama, which also stars Brad Pitt and reportedly pivots around the Manson murders that rocked Los Angeles in 1969, won’t open until more than a year from now, Aug. 9, 2019 – and, according to DiCaprio, “we haven’t shot a single frame.” That may be a long time to wait for originality, and anything with Tarantino’s name attached risks a backlash thanks to recent reports of his professional conduct with Rose McGowan and Uma Thurman. For his part, though, Tarantino knows how to expertly play to his fellow theatre-owners (the filmmaker operates the New Beverly Cinema in L.A.). “I love movies,” he told the CinemaCon attendees. “And I love movies in movie theatres.”

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