Ten Hollywood distributors flew in talent and created video reels at this year’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas. Amid the non-stop four-day rush of showbiz razzle-dazzle and box office posturing, there was real information to be gleaned.
Here’s who came out on top — and who did not.
1. Disney is king, and Jack Sparrow lives
Thanks to CEO Bob Iger’s bets on Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, Disney really didn’t have to do more than boast about their market share dominance and show the fifth installment of what many perceive as a tired franchise: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (May 26).
Many of us were agreeably surprised. Instead of the usual hodgepodge of overwrought action set pieces, Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and writer Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) actually devised a semi-coherent, engaging narrative that reunites Johnny Depp as graceful drunk Captain Jack Sparrow with Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa and Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, along with a sparring romantic young couple (Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites) and entertaining Spanish villain (Javier Bardem). Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Oscar-nominated Norwegian water adventure “Kon-Tiki”) and the smartypants VFX team at MPC created stunning designs for this very European high seas adventure. And they’re promising another one.
2. Best in Show went to Fox
While Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony are undergoing management upheaval, Fox has already established its new team, led by talented women under chairman Stacy Snider: Emma Watts (Fox), Elizabeth Gabler (Fox 2000), Vanessa Morrison (Animation) and Pam Levine (marketing). They and Fox distribution chief Chris Aronson orchestrated the best presentation of the Con, complete with dance numbers and Hugh Jackman promoting his turn as P.T. Barnum in original musical “The Great Showman.”
But the lineup was also strong, relying, like all the studios, on franchises, sequels and remakes, from Ridley Scott’s terrifying space battle “Alien: Covenant” and Matt Reeves’ “The War For the Planet of the Apes” to Kenneth Branagh’s glossy period ensemble “Murder on the Orient Express.”
3. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” wowed
While he effectively rebuked Warner Bros.’ stance on evolving with audiences to embrace a multi-platform strategy by stating that the only platform he believes in for his movies is theaters, director Nolan’s stunning seven-minute “Dunkirk” piece has everyone salivating to see the final movie. The immersive war film places moviegoers inside the pivotal and dire World War II beach battle from the air (Tom Hardy in a Spitfire dog fight), land (medics desperately sprinting to get a wounded soldier onto a disembarking rescue boat) and sea (terrified soldiers in landing boats ducking incoming artillery fire).
“Wonder Woman” aside (see below), Warners relied on a familiar string of established trailers for the rest of its slate, and didn’t do much with the talent it jetted in — Ben Affleck had nothing to say at the “Justice League” conclusion.
4. Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron kick ass
Among a raft of strong women at CinemaCon, eyes are on Warner Bros./DC’s “Wonder Woman” (June 2) standalone starring Israeli military veteran Gal Gadot, who stole the show in “Batman v. Superman,” but still has to prove that she can carry her own movie. In first-look footage, director Patty Jenkins showed what Wonder Woman can do with her magic cuff, sword, shield and golden lasso, but clearly Chris Pine as an American spy during World War I also plays a crucial role in introducing her to the modern world — as well as the male sex.
Movie stars who are both gorgeous and dangerous are the ones that last. Having dominated “Mad Max: Fury Road” as Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron displays a special aptitude for martial arts stunts in “Atomic Blonde” (Focus Features, July 28). “John Wick” stunt-wrangler-director David Leitch pushed Theron to show what she could do in brutal hand to hand combat. A 10-minute fight scene from that movie has to be seen to be believed. Theron also joined Universal’s eighth “Fast and Furious” movie, F. Gary Gray’s “The Fate of the Furious” (April 14), as a manipulatively alluring villain.
5. Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, and John Cena show muscle
These tough guys all know how to work a crowd and star in multiple movies this year: Johnson and Efron are hilarious in Paramount’s “Baywatch” (May 26), which has been remade into a raucous lifeguard comedy. Johnson also turns up in “The Fate of the Furious,” while Efron sails through the air in Fox’s P.T. Barnum musical “The Greatest Showman.”
Wrestler-actor John Cena, meanwhile, managed to land the lead voice role in “Ferdinand”(December 15), Fox’s animated version of the children’s classic about a bull who doesn’t want to fight, by insisting, “I am Ferdinand!” He also costars with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in sniper vs. soldier indie actioner “The Wall” (Amazon/Roadside Attractions, May 12), from director Doug Liman, who he called both “crazy” and “a genius.”
6. Amazon Studios proves to be less disruptive than Warner Bros., Fox and Universal
That’s because, at least for now, Amazon Studios is in the indie auteur business. They need to keep their movies in theaters to build branding and word of mouth, distribution chief Bob Berney told me. This is something their rival Netflix does not believe in.
With DVD revenues on the wane and lower than expected foreign growth, several studios are pushing hard to make movies available via video on demand earlier than the average 90-day exclusive “window” that most theaters demand: Warners, which is about to be acquired by AT&T; Universal, which is owned by cable giant Comcast; and Fox, owned by global satellite mogul Rupert Murdoch.
These studios want to be able to charge a $30 premium for early VOD between 17 to 45 days, while Paramount and Disney are more interested in flexible VOD rollouts for non-blockbusters that have run out of steam. But the big theater chains are hanging onto their best strategy for keeping audiences coming and charging them even more: immersive sound, super-clear big screens, luxury seating (4D motion recliners!) and in-theater drinking and dining.
This Clash of the Titans isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon, because judging from the conversations I had with both studios and exhibitors, there is no emerging model that would be acceptable to both sides. They’re all over the place — and legally, neither side can negotiate as a block. Will the studios really share a piece of their pie? Will the exhibitors really pull movies off the screen if the studios go early with VOD?