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Inside CinemaCon 2019: Disney’s Might, Hollywood’s Diversity and ‘F– Netflix’

Paramount Pictures wowed with its presentation, while NATO chief told attendees Netflix and theaters can coexist

Netflix was once again at the forefront of the conversation at this week’s National Organization of Theater Owners annual CinemaCon — but issues like the dominance of Disney after absorbing 20th Century Fox and the explosion of diversity also bubbled up among industry executives in Las Vegas.

NATO chief John Fithian kicked off the conversation about Netflix on Tuesday, assuring movie theater owners that streaming services like Netflix don’t have to be seen as a threat to their bottom line and that they can coexist. He cited a 2017 Ernst & Young report that showed that moviegoers who frequently went to cinemas also spent more time on streaming services at home.

The message was clear at this year’s convention: The theatrical moviegoing experience is still valued and everyone is committed to keeping it alive. Helen Mirren was arguably the biggest advocate for theaters, taking the stage during the Warner Bros. presentation to say, “I love Netflix… but f— Netflix. There is nothing like sitting in the cinema, the lights go down, the incredible moment of excitement…”

Universal’s presentation also emphasized how much theatrical moviegoing means to its talent. The studio showed montage of stars like Judi Dench, Tiffany Haddish, Seth Rogen, Antonio Banderas, Jordan Peele, Lena Waithe, Emma Thompson, Idris Elba and more talking about why actually going to the movies is so important to them.

And Disney Chairman Alan Horn hit on the issue as well: “The theater is and always will be, in our minds, the cornerstone of the theatrical moviegoing experience, period.”

Olivia Wilde, who just had her directorial debut with “Booksmart,” said on a filmmaker panel on Thursday that “there is nothing more exciting than when you see your movie in a movie theater. Being in an editing room and imaging that relationship to your audience in a theater is profound.”

Netflix and other streamers have been a threat to the traditional theatrical distribution method for quite some time now by shortening — and in some cases obliterating — the traditional months-long window between a film appearing in theaters and becoming available for home viewing (or even viewing on mobile devices).

Even Fithian expressed frustration at how much the streamer was dominating the conversation, chiding reporters at a joint press conference with MPAA chief Charles Rivkin for focusing their questions on Netflix and not the record 2018 box office.

Bottom line: Exhibitors and some studio execs are still scared of streamers, but Netflix isn’t going anywhere. In fact, Steven Spielberg recently reignited the conversation over a plan to propose new rules for the Oscars that would place limits on Netflix and other streamers trying to get around a theatrical release, but still win Best Picture. (It’s an idea that has already drawn the attention of the Justice Department over possible antitrust violations.)

But the threat of Netflix wasn’t the only focus of this year’s CinemaCon. Many attendees were curious to see how Disney would handle its recent acquisition of Fox — and many were stunned to see all the Fox films featured so prominently on Disney’s slate and sizzle reel. Popular Fox properties like “X-Men,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Avatar” and “Kingsman” are now part of the House of Mouse — barely a month after the deal was finalized.

Arguably the biggest gasp from the audience of the entire convention was when Disney showed a graphic of its slate that included Fox’s upcoming projects, solidifying that Disney is a powerhouse to be reckoned with.

While Disney EVP Cathleen Taff noted that some release dates will move given the overlap between the two slates, it’s clear that the studio’s output will significantly increase in the short term. After all, Disney inherited 13 films Fox that Fox slated for release through March 2020. “It’s my humble hope that legacies are made every day and with the vast resources of Disney, we are ready to write our next great chapter,” Fox vice chair Emma Watts, who will move over to Disney, said about the merger.

Disney came up short on specifics — and underwhelmed many attendees with a lack of A-list guests or footage from eagerly awaited titles like “Frozen 2” and “Star Wars.” The studio did show an “Avengers: Endgame” clip, as well as footage from “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” as well as 17 minutes of “Toy Story 4” that pulled at people’s heart strings. Compared to the star-packed presentations of Warner Bros. and Universal, though, Disney disappointed.

But does the studio really need to pull out more stops? In 2018, Disney led the market share with 26%, or over $3 billion in total gross, according to BoxOfficeMojo. If you add in Fox’s 10.3% market share last year, the new supersize studio would claim 36% of all tickets sold.

If Fox’s disappearance suggested a shrinking of the theatrical marketplace, the idea was reinforced throughout the convention by the number of players who were absent from Vegas. Sony sat out this year’s event — despite a starry slate this year that includes “Men in Black: International,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and a “Charlie’s Angels” reboot.

And Amazon Studios, which has hosted a lunch presentation for the last several years, instead just screened its upcoming Mindy Kaling Sundance comedy “Last Night.”

Among the studios that did present, Warner Bros. had a strong presentation showcasing tentpole movies like “Joker,” “Birds of Prey,” “It: Chapter 2,” “Detective Pikachu,” “The Kitchen” and “Doctor Sleep. The studio also had strong surprise guests, including Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Todd Philips, Jessica Chastain and more.

One key Warner player who was MIA: former CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who left Warner Bros. last month amid an investigation into his past relationship with actress Charlotte Kirk. Warner Motion Picture Group Chairman Toby Emmerich acknowledged his absence and credited the longtime exec for “one of the greatest periods in financial growth in our company.”

Universal took pride in a diverse, superhero-free slate. It’s clear that the studio’s priority is hiring diverse filmmakers and talent in front of the camera, and showing more commitment to diversity as a whole. On the company’s slate is the horror film “Ma,” starring Octavia Spencer, as well as buzzy “Queen & Slim” starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.

“Little,” starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae and Marsai Martin, was one of the biggest show-stealers, especially since 14-year-old Martin came up with the idea for the project.

STX Entertainment also emphasized its commitment to diversity, heralding the studio’s success with female-directed films and women in front of the camera: “18% of our films are directed by women,  and 64% have had women in the lead role. 14% have had entire female led teams,” chairman Adam Fogelson crowed.

The indie showed trailers for Taraji P. Henson’s ‘The Best of Enemies,” as well as Diane Keaton’s “Poms” and Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen,” previously titled “Toff Guys.” Fogelson also announced a third “Bad Moms” film, titled “Bad Moms’ Moms,” and Chadwick Boseman’s “21 Bridges” received early praise on social media. The outlet is still riding high from the success of “The Upside,” which earned STX its first No. 1 opening and became only its second release to gross over $100 million domestic.

Paramount came out with a bang, beginning with a video montage of chairman Jim Gianopulos’ circuitous journey to the convention by way of gatherings for fans of “Star Trek” and “The Godfather.” To present the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” dancers in vibrant, sequin outfits performed a show-stopping routine, and then invited star Taron Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher on stage.

The highlight of the presentation was the sneak peek of “Terminator: Dark Fate” (on which Skydance Media is a production company) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton taking the stage to reminisce about the franchise. Jim Carrey came out pouring popcorn all over the stage (who on earth cleaned this up?) to present “Sonic The Hedgehog,” while director Ang Lee presented footage of the highly anticipated “Gemini Man” (also a Skydance project) starring Will Smith.

And Lionsgate, which powered through a presentation that included “Hellboy,” “John Wick Chapter 3” (which, by the way, looks savage, and Halle Berry doesn’t age), as well as “Knives Out,” which was presented by Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas and director Rian Johnson. They capped off CinemaCon as a whole by showing their film “Longshot,” which stars Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron.

“Knives Out” in particular stood out as a film that might be an example of the “artist-first” strategy that new Lionsgate heads Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane are using to rebuild Lionsgate after a terrible 2018 at the box office. 2020 will see the studio move forward in that new direction, starting with a production deal with Seth Rogen’s Point Grey Pictures that Drake announced during the presentation.

Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report. 

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