CinemaCon Razzle-Dazzle: Hollywood Teases Summer’s Big Guns Amid Box-Office Slump

Managing director Mitch Neuhauser predicts theater owners will leave convention feeling optimistic

Theater owners are descending on Las Vegas Monday to find out what Hollywood studios have planned to pull the industry out of its box-office slump.

The impetus for this desert pilgrimage is CinemaCon, the exhibition industry's annual trade show. It arrives at a time of greater urgency than last year, when theater owners were basking in the success of films like "The Hunger Games" and "The Vow."

The box office is down more than 11 percent this year and seems unlikely to rebound until "Iron Man 3" premieres next month.

Still, Mitch Neuhauser, the convention's managing director, predicted the attendees will leave feeling optimistic about the rest of the theatrical slate.

"Every single industry goes through ups and downs," he told TheWrap. "The first three months of the year may not be what everybody anticipated, but with the product coming out over the summer, I think there’s a chance this summer will outshine what’s been done in the past. Dec. 31, 2013, is a long way away, so it's a little early to be passing judgments about the state of the industry."

Richard Fay, president of domestic theatrical distribution at Lionsgate, predicted that there will be enough firepower on display to assuage exhibitors' worries. He will be there highlighting a slate that includes the action comedy "Red 2" and a little film called "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

"With the product being shown, we're going to give exhibition the hope that we’re going to be okay," he said. "The message is, 'You're in for a hot and busy summer.'" 

Indeed, talk of a business in decline will be verboten. Over four razzle-dazzle-filled days in Sin City, studios will instead attempt to floor theater owners with sneak peeks at their upcoming slates of big-budget releases, while trotting out the likes of Johnny Depp, Melissa McCarthy and Chris Pine to enliven presentations with good old-fashioned star power.

If previous years are any guide, they will also remind exhibitors that the cash they shelled out to convert their theaters for digital projection has been money well-spent. The box office broke records last year thanks to 3D hits like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Avengers" — films that could never have screened without the technology. 

Neuhauser and the various studios are keeping their cards close to their chest about what films will be highlighted, but it's a good bet that this year's crop of major box-office contenders such as "Despicable Me 2," "White House Down" and "The Hangover Part III" will make appearances.

There will also be four major screenings for theater owners, with studios previewing the animated sequel "Monster's University," Michael Bay's bodybuilding thriller "Pain & Gain," the Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock comedy "The Heat" and the romantic comedy "The To-Do List."

One key difference from last year is that all seven of the major studios, a club that now includes Lionsgate thanks to the success of "The Hunger Games," will stage presentations of their upcoming slates. In 2011, Universal and Fox sat out the presentations, while last year every studio except Lionsgate participated. Lionsgate chose to screen a film, "What to Expect When You're Expecting," instead.

For theater owners, the great value of CinemaCon goes beyond getting a chance to see and hear what studios are readying for release. They also have an opportunity to get a feel for how the footage studios bring to the gambling Mecca plays in front of an audience, giving them a chance to place their bets accordingly.

Life of Pi"Life of Pi," for instance, entered the convention last year with little fanfare. That quickly changed when footage of star Suraj Sharma facing off against a school of flying fish revealed that director Ang Lee was pushing the limits of 3D. The response was rapturous.

It can cut both ways, though. Perhaps no film was more eagerly anticipated last year than "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which promised not only a return to Middle-earth, but an opportunity to see how high frame rates could be deployed with 3D. The format speeds up the rate at which a film is shot and projected from 24 to 48 frames per second, enhancing clarity and theoretically enhancing the 3D experience dramatically. But theater owners griped that it made the fantasy adventure look like a telenovela, and director Peter Jackson later admitted that showing early 48fps footage to exhibitors in a less-than-ideal setting was a mistake.

For Neuhauser, the gathering isn't just an opportunity to check out the baccarat tables at Caesar's Palace. It's also a chance for exhibitors to learn from one another at a time when they're desperately trying to hang onto business.

"This is a trade show that caters to all the newest ideas and ways to make the theatrical experience the absolute best that it can be," he said. "Today’s audience is so attuned to everything that's going on technologically that it is becoming more selective, so everyone needs to be at the top of their game to keep the moviegoing audience coming back."

For the Record: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Richard Fay, head of domestic theatrical distribution at Lionsgate, as Richard Weeks.