The movie business is better than ever.
That was the refrain heard throughout the luncheons and glossy studio presentations that unfolded this week in Las Vegas, but it was difficult to escape the profound sense that this is an industry in transition. While studio executives rhapsodized about the power of movies and compared the sensation of hunkering down into an oversized seat with a trough of popcorn to a quasi-religious experience, this is a business that is being pulled inextricably abroad, while newer digital forms of delivery continue to upend Hollywood.
The presentations were less starry and the special effects extravaganzas and sequels often seemed pitched at China, where industry leaders continued to note the staggering number of theaters being built each day: 13.
As for the films themselves, they’re a mixed bag. “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” look like juggernauts and a handful of comedies and inspirational dramas have breakout potential, but many studios seemed eager to turn the calendar on 2014 and steamroll into 2015, where there stands to be pileup of sequels, comic book films and “Star Wars.”
Here are six takeaways from a week spent cutting through the glitz and glitter of Sin City.
1.) SUMMER 2014 SUFFERS BLOCKBUSTER DROUGHT
It was always going to be a tough comparison, but this upcoming summer is looking a little light. Beyond web-spinners, giant robots and a return to the planet of the apes, there’s not a lot for fanboys. Compare that to last year, when nearly every weekend brought with it a new high profile sequel or tentpole film, a dizzying array that included “Iron Man 3,” “World War Z,” “Star Trek:Into Darkness” and “The Fast & the Furious 6.”
Some of that is the inevitable result of scheduling or rejiggering. The death of Paul Walker, for instance, forced Universal Pictures to push “Fast & the Furious 7” into 2015.
The upside? Summer movies will get more room to breathe at the box office and might not be as dependent on huge opening weekends. If they’re good — and films such as “Tammy,” “Million Dollar Arm” and “Lucy” looked good — they may have an opportunity to build an audience organically instead of relying on a numeral in their titles. Cannibalization was a persistent problem last summer, with no less a sage than Viacom Chairman Philippe Dauman saying the competition cut into the grosses of his movies.
2.) THE HBO INFLUENCE
Films are pushing the envelope and several ratings battles loom. After years of influencing small screen work — would “The Sopranos” have worked were it not for “Goodfellas”? — the paradigm has shifted. Movies seem to be taking their cues from premium cable and blood drenched, sex filled programming such as “Game of Thrones” and “Girls.”
Raunchy comedies such as “Sex Tape,” “Neighbors” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West” overflow with bare breasts, four letter words and gross-out set pieces. There’s a can-you-top this feel to scenes that find Seth Rogen milking Rose Byrne or Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal working their way through a Kama Sutra series of sexual positions.
The same goes for the violence. Take “The Equalizer,” a Denzel Washington thriller that makes “Man on Fire” seem as tame as “Happy Feet 2.” In less than 30 seconds, Washington’s vigilante lays waste to a room full of Russian mobsters, jamming a corkscrew through one man’s chin, his open mouth exposing the tip of the instrument.
Movies need to offer audiences something they can’t find on television. The R-rating is about to get more permissible.
3.) HEY, WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT 3D REVOLUTION?
In past years, executives have talked up the 3D renaissance taking place on film screens, rushing to convert anything and everything into the format. Those rose tinted glasses were barely a blip at this year’s gathering. The majority of studios didn’t even bother to screen footage in 3D, although they will still offer their biggest films in the format as it is considered essential to securing a berth in the Chinese market.
Despite the success of the 3D space adventure “Gravity,” 3D moviegoing rates continued to decline, according to a survey released in conjunction with the convention by the Motion Picture Association of America. The percentage of domestic moviegoers who saw 3D movies fell to 27 percent in 2013, a far cry from the 41 percent that checked out a 3D film in 2010.
Instead, theater owners were treated to odes about the power of immersive sound, and exhibitors walking through trades shows were invited to try out 4-D theater technology, that bucks, bends, mists and releases smells tied to onscreen action.
4.) THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT
Last year may have been a record one at the box office, but there are demographic trends that should keep exhibitors up at night. Despite an array of young adult titles such as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and broadly appealing blockbusters such as “Iron Man 3,” the number of frequent moviegoers in the key 18-24 age group fell 21 percent in 2013, and attendance in the 12-17 age dropped nearly 15 percent.
Don’t look for theaters to embrace smartphones or other electronic devices that have become veritable appendages for a rising generation as a way to lure young adults back to the multiplex.
During a press conference, National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian said that theater owners are hesitant to flirt with allowing cellphones in screenings and have been told by patrons that they will stop going to movies if iPhones and texting become permissible.
Customers tell exhibitors that the theater is “the last refuge of peace” in a cellphone age, Fithian said.
MPAA chief Chris Dodd agreed, “I’m a living demographic. I like the quiet time.”
5.) TOON DEFICIENT
Walt Disney Studios’ decision to push the release of “The Good Dinosaur” back by more than a year has left a huge hole in the summer when it comes to family titles. Aside from “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” that means that exhibitors will be short on animation when the kids are out of school. “Maleficent,” Disney’s live action update of “Sleeping Beauty,” also stands to benefit from the lack of competition for the family dollar.
The absence of strong family skewing films is all the more surprising given that last year saw a glut of animated offerings such as “Epic,” “Turbo,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University.” Too many options might have taken a chunk out of their final box office tallies. Perhaps it would have been better to wait.
6.) 2015 WILL BE A RECORD BREAKER
If this year’s slate looks a little scrawny, get ready for 2015. It will bring about the return of the Avengers, James Bond, the Terminator and the Fantastic Four, not to mention sequels to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Ted and the Bourne series. Oh, and for good measure there are not one, but two Pixar titles.
As Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn said during his presentation to theater owners, channeling Yoda, “Patience you must have.”