Before arriving at CinemaCon in Las Vegas on Monday, multiple people had told me that the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual trade show is one big love fest. For four days every year, the movie studios stop being fierce competitors and come together to celebrate one thing they can agree on: exhibitors are their very best friends in the world.
It didn’t take long, however, to realize that NATO and the studios have different perspectives on the state of the theatrical market. At times, if felt like the 5,000 motion picture professionals in attendance were being sent very mixed messages, underscoring the fact the movies face plenty of uncertainty.
NATO president and CEO John Fithian’s state of the industry address on Monday was about as rosy an outlook on the exhibition industry as you’ll find anywhere. Fithian opened by saying he was there to discuss “very strong” numbers from 2016 and predicted that the month of March would see $1 billion in box office revenues for the first time in history. He cited the fact that domestic box office receipts reached a record $11.37 billion in the U.S. and Canada last year, a 2.3 percent increase from 2015.
“Despite all this excited talk about the internet and streaming disrupting the movie business, domestic box office has been on a steady, upward path for more than a decade,” he said. “There has been disruption in this industry, just not in the movie theater industry.”
Fithian also shot back against the “common misconception” that millennials aren’t going to the movies. “Research indicates the opposite,” he said, pointing to data from PostTrak, comScore’s polling service, showing 55 percent of frequent moviegoers — defined as those who see at least four movies in theaters during a two month period — fall into the 18 to 34 age range.
During the same presentation, however, Disney head of distribution Dave Hollis shared data that told a much different story. Setting aside dollars and cents, Hollis noted that movie attendance has actually fallen during the past decade, from 1.4 billion tickets to 1.32 billion last year.
“Attendance has been more or less flat — not really changing — in the last handful of years,” Hollis said, adding that attendance among moviegoers aged 18 to 24 — aka millennials — has declined in recent years. “The media environment that we all participate in and that our consumers participate in continues to change rapidly. Our consumers, as you know well, have more choices before them than ever before.” Regardless of who was guiltier of cherrypicking data to fit a particular narrative, attendees at CinemaCon were not getting a clear picture.
The mixed messages didn’t stop there. After presentations from STX Entertainment, Paramount, Disney and Universal all completely avoided the elephant in the room — when and how the 90-day theatrical release window would be scrapped for new arrangements between studios, exhibitors and VOD platforms — Warner Bros. addressed the topic head on, saying out loud what was on everyone’s minds.
“As consumer tastes change the way we do business, along with viewing habits and social media, they want more choices on where and how to consume our content,” Sue Kroll, the studio’s president of worldwide marketing and distribution, said during the Warner Bros. presentation. “We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this dynamic marketplace.”
No one seems to be in a rush to upset the applecart, however. Last year’s CinemaCon made headlines for the same issue — the uncertain future of theatrical windows — but no progress has been made aside from a few executives saying that they are “in talks” and that negotiations are taking place.
And where was The Screening Room, Napster co-founder Sean Parker’s proposed day-and-date premium VOD service that would charge a $50 fee for watching new releases? The fledgling company’s bold new idea was the talk of Vegas last year, and co-founders Parker and CEO Prem Akkaraju were reportedly going to hit the convention floor this year, but no one at CinemaCon seemed to have any idea whether Parker was even there. Not only did The Screening Room not have a booth at the trade show, the company hasn’t so much as issued a single press release since last year’s CinemaCon.
Despite some of the confusion permeating the trade show, I did leave Las Vegas feeling particularly bullish on studio movies. Some of the exclusive trailers and promo reels for upcoming 2017 films were simply stunning. Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (Sony) and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (Warner Bros.) both look exceptional, and STX’s galactic epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” seems to be Luc Besson’s equivalent of James Cameron’s “Avatar” — a film the French director has been wanting to make for decades but had to shelve until the technology could catch up with his vision. Other titles on my must-see list include the Charlize Theron action-thriller “Atomic Blonde” (Focus), Sofia Coppola’s dark drama “The Beguiled” (Universal, Focus) and Alexander Payne’s bizarre comedy “Downsizing” (Paramount).
While this year’s trade show may have raised as many questions as it did provide answers for the anxious exhibitors wondering how technology and changing consumer preferences are going to impact their business, uncertainty should be expected during any transitional period, and it’s clear the movies are facing something of an inflection point. Everyone shares a common goal — growing the global movie business — but almost nobody seems to be on the same page quite yet about how to do it.