With "White House Down," "After Earth" and "Smurfs 2," Sony offers something for everyone…it hopes
At a time when most major studios are winnowing their slates to a handful of big-budget releases, Sony is taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its movie production.
In its presentation to theater owners at the annual CinemaCon movie convention on Wednesday, the studio distinguished itself from competitors with a two-hour presentation that looked at a dozen upcoming releases of all shapes and sizes includiing "White House Down," "Captain Phillips" and "Smurfs 2." The presentation dwarfed those of big-studio competitors like Warner Bros and Disney, at least in terms of quantity if not quality.
It also highlighted the different approaches major Hollywood companies are taking to the challenges of growing their movie businesses when faced with threats from cable television and digital players. Instead, Sony repeatedly touted its number one position in market share in 2012, and its $4.4 billion global box office take.
Earlier on Wednesday, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn took theater owners on a crash course in how his company allocates its resources. He promised theater owners far fewer films but also pledged to deliver eight mega-budget productions from the likes of Pixar, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. Theater owners were galvanized by the possibility of more "Star Wars" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" hitting their screens, but as last year's "John Carter" demonstrated, the price for missing when swinging for the fences is costly.
Likewise, Warner Bros. and Paramount are pouring their capital into only a handful of major film franchises. In Warner's case, the studio's hopes rest primarily with "Man of Steel," a reboot of Superman, and "The Hangover Part III." In other words, sequels and superheroes.
For Paramount, summer will rise and fall on the success of the science-fiction epic "Star Trek Into Darkness." Its other major asset is Michael Bay, that reliable purveyor of pyrotechnic machismo in films like "Transformers." His body-building comedy "Pain & Gain" screened to tepid reaction on Monday, but he will be back with "Transformers 4" next year.
Universal Studios has shown more of a willingness to mix up the kinds of films it makes, offering up animated fare appealoing to all ages with "Despicable Me 2" alongside cult movies like "Kick-Ass 2." Its most distinctive feature seems to be a willingness to release tentpole films like Tom Cruise's "Oblivion" in off-months like April in the hopes of profiting from reduced competition.
Twentieth Century Fox and Lionsgate will present their release slates on Thursday.
In comparison to many of its rivals, Sony's formula looks positively nostalgic. Over the last decade, studios have increasingly averse to growing their slates, preferring to focus on a few branded properties based on comic books or young adult novels.
To be sure, Sony is doing some of that too. The studio will have "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" in theaters in 2014 and is attempting to field its own young adult franchise with this summer's "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," an adaptation of Cassandra Clare's best-seller. There are also sequels to "Grown Ups," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and, with an eye toward international audiences, "Smurfs."
But the diversity of genres and budget ranges on display at Sony's curtain-raiser was a change of pace from other studios at the four-day Vegas gathering. While other studios have backed away from pricey A-list talent, Sony is taking an expensive gamble on Will Smith's "After Earth," a futuristic adventure based on that rarest of commodities, an original concept.
The reception among theater owners was reserved for footage of "After Earth," which primarily leaves the big action setpieces to Smith's son Jaden.
Theater owners were more enthused about "White House Down," which features Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx as a cop and U.S. president trying to escape a terrorist attack. What it lacks in plausibility — Foxx as leader of the free world seems disturbingly comfortable wielding a rocket launcher — it more than makes up for in bravura action sequences.
There were also a number of adult-skewing titles, a genre that is something of an endangered species as studios look to children's fare and films that will appeal to teenagers in the hopes of maximizing their audiences. Yet Sony is throwing its money and its marketing heft behind movies such as the David O. Russell's ABSCAM drama "American Hustle" and George Clooney's World War II treasure hunt film "Monuments Men," films that seem unlikely to draw in many people below the drinking age.
In perhaps the most telling sign of the new Hollywood reality, Sony will release "Stalingrad" a 3D Russian war film that seems unlikely to go over well in, say, Topeka. Yet Russia, like China, boasts a huge and growing population of moviegoers, so an IMAX film about the Battle of Dubienka might be in Sony's future.
"We are here today to show you the money," Rory Bruer, Sony's president of worldwide distribution, said at the start of the presentation.
If Sony makes good on that boast, theater owners likely won't care much what path they took to rack up profits.