The razzle-dazzle of past conventions of the movie theater community has disappeared
Hollywood is trying, but it’s awfully hard to put on a global celebration of the theatrical experience at CinemaCon when the entire entertainment industry is in upheaval.
With Sony saving its pennies by not coming to Las Vegas at all, with Disney thumbing its nose at the world with a presentation that said, “Nah, we aren’t bothering,” and with once-ambitious Fox dutifully tucked into the Disney universe — it was an underwhelming week.
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Gone are the massive lunches for 5,000 people in a ballroom with a galaxy of stars lined up on the dais after being herded onto the corporate jet for a three-hour, door-to-door razzle-dazzle. Gone are the days of the enormous giveaway bags that people used to FedEx back to their hometowns because they were so unwieldy.
It was left to Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. (also looking to keep its balance post-Tsujihara trauma) to hold up the grand Hollywood tradition of showmanship. Here are my top takeaways from CinemaCon 2019:
1. Diversity is super hot right now.
It’s almost as if 18 months ago all the agents, managers, creative executives and studio greenlight committees collectively got together and said: Hey, let’s start making more inclusive entertainment!
All of a sudden every single major studio slate has women directors — not just one, but a bunch — and people of color, and casts with all women, and women kicking ass and Asian people too! Both Universal and Warner Bros. opened their presentations with a solemn speech to the gathered exhibitors about their devotion to diversity.
Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich used the word “diverse” or “diversity” four times in his speech, and studio distribution chief Jeff Goldstein used it twice. (Note to execs: We got it.) Meanwhile, Universal opened its presentation with an homage to “heroes” that notably included lots of African-American characters, gay, trans and female people, while intoning that the “universal hero has many faces… no matter the gender, race or age.” Let’s hope this lasts!
2. Tiffany Haddish is having her moment.
The brash comedian from the gang-ridden streets of Los Angeles — a fact she reminds you about often — is in a rash of movies this year and appeared on stage at nearly every studio presentation for one movie or another. (Liked all her outfits, but especially that flowery dress.)
Whether stroking a shih tzu for Universal’s “The Secret Life of Pets” (in which she voices the character Daisy) or playing a tough gangster’s wife in New Line’s “The Kitchen,” with Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy, or the Miguel Arteta’s Paramount comedy “Limited Partners,” in which she plays an entrepreneur, Haddish clearly has her pick of parts.
So buckle up and get used to her particular vernacular and gift of comic timing.
3. Donna Langley and Universal Pictures came out swinging.
More than any slate in memory, the upcoming movies at Universal Pictures reflect the high-low sensibilities of its chief executive, Donna Langley. With her plummy British accent but keen appreciation for the ethnic stew that is the U.S. and Europe, it all showed in the choice of movies.
Lots of British actors were up on stage — you don’t get higher-brow than the movie version of “Downton Abbey.” But then you also don’t get more street than a Lena Waithe movie about a pair of African-American lovebirds turned cop-killers (I think that’s the plot of “Queen + Slim,” but it was hard to be sure).
All in all, in a world where NBCUniversal is competing against the megatrons Disney and Netflix, Langley’s team is punching hard at the right weight. Extra points for getting Jennifer Hudson to sing the theme of “Cats,” live.
4. Paramount can put on a show.
Jim Gianopulos once again hit a homer with another self-deprecating opening bit starring, um, Jim Gianopulos, this time stuck in traffic and getting dropped off at “Sinemacon,” “Cinema-don” and “CinemaKhan,” where the Trekkies meet.
The studio’s presentation was tightly run, sharply written (except for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who rambled on as the Terminator) and smartly highlighted a few key movies rather than giving us an endless train of everything on the slate (as Warner Bros. apparently felt was necessary).
And yes, we know that Paramount is digging out of several years of low creative leadership and production numbers, but A for effort.
5. Disney drops the mic.
Disney’s newly dominant position — controlling as much as 40% of the movie content coming out this year — hung over the whole proceeding, whether anyone said so or not.
A polite hat-tip was given to Fox Searchlight and its four Best Picture Oscars in the past decade. Emma Watts, now the vaunted vice chairman of Fox Films, a division of Disney, elegantly offered a “humble hope” to continue making great stories.
But other than a bit of a rebooted “Aladdin” and a smidge of the live-action “The Lion King,” there was oh-so-little Disney. No footage of “Frozen II,” nothing to say about “Star Wars” upcoming. The presentation ended 40 minutes before anyone thought it would and we all had time for a drink. Message received in the exhibition community: You will take our movies and you will show them.
6. Music + Movies = Money.
If you ask me what movie I’m most excited to see out of CinemaCon, I might say “Rocketman,” about the life and music of Elton John, which got an extended look at the convention.
Yes, it’s another biopic of a rock star, hard on the heels of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which has now grossed nearly $1 billion around the world.
The same director who took over “Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher, has directed what appears to be a brilliant Taron Egerton in the leading role.
But other musically driven movies are seizing space in the lineups: “Yesterday,” about a young British man of Asian background who wakes up to a world that has contracted amnesia about the Beatles and becomes a star by performing their songs; a near-identical movie by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) called “Blinded by the Light” about a young British man of Asian background who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen music and finds his path out of a podunk town. (Close enough.)
Regardless, it’s a welcome change. This CinemaCon had the fewest superheroes per square inch than any in recent memory.