The Take-Away From CinemaCon: Studios Demand More, More, More

The summer of 2012 looks killer, but news of premium VOD pacts knee-caps exhibitors when they need a helping hand

It felt at times that studios came to CinemaCon to bury exhibitors, not to praise them.

Not in their public pronouncements, of course, which were full of effusive thanks for theater owners. Rather it was their actions — and their incessant cries of "go digital or die." 

At every turn, exhibitors were told they were living through a "3D Renaissance," with the studios trotting out the Da Vinci's of the art form George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron to laud the theater owners for building digital basilicas for their films. 

Read also: Awkward! Warner Shows Off Theatrical Slate in the Shadow of VOD Deal

But here's the problem: Box office is down. Nearly 20 percent.

Moreover, that conversion cost many attendees hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Instead of acknowledging the worrisome fault lines, studio chiefs and filmmakers are asking for more, more, more from theater owners. 

Take Cameron. He came to the Las Vegas trade show to proselytize about the need for higher frame rates. Indeed, so ubiquitous was Cameron — popping up at three separate events to talk the need to accelerate from 24 frames per second to 48 or 60 — that he at times seemed like the mayor of CinemaCon. 

"If the 3D puts you into the picture, the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window," Cameron said. 

Read also: James Cameron Ramps Up His Calls for Higher Frame Rates

Though he said the cost would not be as significant as the $100,000-a-screen many theater owners invested to convert to digital, he did not offer a price tag.

Further exacerbating the tension between studios and exhibitors was the news that Warner Bros., Sony, Universal and Fox  will roll out a new premium video-on-demand service to DirecTV subscribers next month that will create even more competition for theater-owners.

That news broke hours before Warner's was scheduled to make its annual CinemaCon presentation to exhibitors, making the subject of VOD the unacknowledged Kraken in the room and creating a few awkward moments. 

The National Association of Theater Owners, which runs the convention, slammed the move. "Theater operators were not consulted or informed of the substance, details or timing of this announcement," read a NATO statement.

As for the presentations themselves, the studios promised a summer that would overflow with the kind of four-quadrant fare that would revitalize the box office. In little over a month, summer will officially kick off with the release of "Thor," followed shortly thereafter with sequels to "Cars," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the final installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise. 

Indeed, with all the panegyrics about the shared experience of movies and the role that theaters play in the social fabric of communities, it was easy to be lulled into a feeling that, regardless of VOD or online piracy, nothing really is going to change. 

"Movie theaters will never, ever go away," Lucas — who is redoing his "Star Wars" franchise into 3D, starting with "Phantom Menace" next year — .said during a panel lunch to sustained applause. 

But from workshops on the power of social networking to drive box office to panel discussions about offering first-class food at concession stands, there was a noticeable sense of desperation.

NATO was even hailing the power of Fathom Events, which beams New York Opera and Glenn Beck, to draw audiences into theaters — and unlike most movies this year, it does so to sold-out audiences.