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Disney Bets Heavy on Sequels at CinemaCon

Studio gives exhibitors an extended look at “Cars 2” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”

From “Cars 2” to “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” Disney is returning to the animated hits and franchise films that have served it — and theater owners — well in the past.

During a two-hour presentation at the annual CinemaCon convention for exhibitors on Tuesday afternoon, the studio trotted out “The Muppets” stars Amy Adams and Jason Segel, “Pirates 4” director Rob Marshall and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Plus, “Cars 2” star Larry the Cable Guy gave exhibitors a flavor for the sequel-heavy slate. “This second movie is so good, I’m ashamed I was in the first one,” he quipped to the crowd.

Despite the power-hitting slate, Disney's power hitters were noticeably missing on stage, including studio chairman Rich Ross and chief creative officer (and Pixar wizard) John Lasseter.

The studio showed extended footage from “Pirates 4” and “Cars 2,” giving attendees a chance to sample the 3D.

"On Stranger Tides," which had its budget scaled back from previous installments, features the beloved Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, of course) searching for the fountain of youth, this time with Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane in tow. McShane plays the fearsome Blackbeard and Cruz is the first bona fide woman pirate –Blackbeard's daughter. 

Newly appointed distribution chief David Hollis led the presentation and promised “amazing action, over the top adventure, state of the art special effects and, of course, Johnny Depp.”

He also reminded them, “The ‘Pirates’ franchise has meant great business for us and for you.”

Based on the footage screened at Caesars Palace on Wednesday, there looks to be lots more. 

Hollis made a point of honoring distribution veteran Chuck Viane, who came on stage to be recognized by exhibition executives ahead of his retirement. 

There was no such love for Dick Cook, summarily ousted from his post as studio chief slightly more than a year ago after three decades of service to Disney (and exhibitors). Strangely, CinemaCon chose to honor Cook on Tuesday night as "Pioneer of the Year" at a separate ceremony. 

Meanwhile, with “Cars 2,” Disney is injecting an espionage element into the animated racing fest and bringing Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer on board. In place of a simple speedway, Pixar opted for more far-flung locales and set the film throughout Europe and, in a bit of bad timing, Japan.

There was also a nod to Disney’s next big stab at cornering on the branded entertainment market — it’s $4 billion purchase Marvel Entertainment.

While Paramount is distributing Marvel’s next two summer blockbusters, “Captain America” and “Thor,” Disney unveiled a sizzle reel for the first superhero film it will produce and distribute, “The Avengers.”

“It will likely be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, movie of summer of 2012,” Hollis said.

For fanboys, there was even a sneak peek at the costume of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, hitherto a closely guarded secret. (Hint, there’s no mask, but lots of arrows.)

Looking farther ahead, Disney unveiled concept art from Pixar’s Scottish highland family film “Brave,” which, despite some release date elasticity, will be the animated division’s summer entrant in 2012. Featuring the voices of Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Craig Ferguson, the movie looks like a cross between the “Asterix” comics and a kind of “Sleeping Beauty” of the moors.

In other Pixar news, the upcoming prequel to "Monster's Inc." has an official title, "Monsters University." Mike and Sully will be getting their diplomas in November 2012. 

Not to be undone by Disney's shiny new acquisitions, the studio also demonstrated a commitment to dustier brands. The studio screened an extended clip from its new "Winnie the Pooh" film and a preview of its "Muppets" reboot.

Stars Segel and Adams told exhibitors that the film will center on getting the Muppets back together in order to save the group's studio. It will also feature songs by "Flight of the Conchords" star Bret McKenzie. 

One thing that will not be on display is a particular part of Segel's anatomy that featured so memorably in the star's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." 

"I do not do any full frontal nudity. Kermit on the other hand," Segel joked. 

Earlier: 

DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider brought out Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, and, via tape, Steven Spielberg to unveil the studio's upcoming mix of prestige films and tentpoles. 

Spielberg was there to whet the appetite of distributors in Vegas for his World War I epic "War Horse." Though he offered a behind the scenes look at the upcoming drama, he was mum about "Lincoln," the presidential biopic set to star Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Colin Farrell presented footage of vampire film "Fright Night," while Jackman was on hand with director Shawn Levy to give theater owners a look at the robot boxing film "Real Steel."

Stone and costar Viola Davis took the stage to raise the curtain on their upcoming Southern drama "The Help."