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Why The Screening Room Succeeded at CinemaCon (But Not How Sean Parker Hoped)

Why The Screening Room Succeeded at CinemaCon (But Not How Sean Parker Hoped)

On Wednesday at Universal’s CinemaCon presentation, Kevin Hart took the Colosseum stage to promote his latest concert film “What Now?” It’s a fair question. Over the last four days, Sean Parker’s controversial day-and-date The Screening Room hovered over every person stepping to a microphone, and their speeches inevitably sang the praises of the communal theatergoing experience. Judging from the strong feelings of theater owners, studios, and talent, this would-be start-up—initially deemed a “distraction” by NATO president John Fithian —doesn’t have a chance.
CinemaCon closed on Thursday with presentations from Twentieth Century Fox, Amazon and Lionsgate, three studios that represent the changing face of Hollywood. 

Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos and his co-chairman Stacey Snider ranged through a wide slate, from yet another comic-book franchise pitting one set of superhero skills against another (Marvel’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” stars Oscar Isaac as its godlike villain, due Memorial Day weekend), the 20-years-later “Independence Day” kick-alien-butt sequel from Roland Emmerich, featuring Sela Ward as the president, and the inevitable “Kingsman” follow-up from Matthew Vaughn. Specialty division Searchlight’s next Oscar-contender “Birth of a Nation” (October 7), from actor-turned-director Nate Parker, stirred up different levels of emotion with its searing images of slave oppression and rebellion. 

That made the attendees sit up and take notice. At every studio presentation, I found myself responding most positively to inventive animation like Blue Sky’s “Ice Age: Collision Course,” as meteors hurtle toward the earth, and DreamWorks Animation’s felt-textured “Trolls,” in which Anna Kendrick, delightfully, gets to sing opposite Justin Timberlake, who also supervised the music.

And raucous family comedies like John Hamberg’s “Why Him?” (December 25), pitting would-be son-in-law James Franco against uptight dad Bryan Cranston, offer welcome respite from all the noisy chaos in such thunderous actioners as Fox/New Regency’s would-be franchise launch “Assassin’s Creed” (December 16), which reunites Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard with “Macbeth”‘s Justin Kurzel. Likewise Tim Burton’s expensive-looking adaptation of the children’s fantasy bestseller “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (September 16), starring Eva Green as a headmistress who can turn into a bird and Samuel L. Jackson as a villain with whittled sharp teeth and white eyes. 

But Fox saved the best for last, as James Cameron strode onto the Colosseum stage to slam The Screening Room by name and tell the exhibitors he was making not three but four “Avatar” sequels (shades of Peter Jackson and “The Hobbit”).

As studios compete against episodic television and addictive point-of-view games, they are coping with the fact that it’s easier to immerse an audience in a world that comes back. That’s why franchises are the holy grail. Sell it once (easier if it’s based on a proven property) and you can sell it again and again, as audiences build loyalty to established characters and universes. So why wouldn’t they want Cameron’s “Avatar” times four? He at least—along with Ang Lee, who is mixing up 3D, 4D and high frame rates on Sony’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” trying something new as he did on “Life of Pi”— is a proven technological explorer who raises the big-screen bar for making moviegoers eyes pop. 

But at a certain point, increasing the pixel scale of movies starts to bring diminishing returns. How to break through the noise? Lionsgate, now that “The Hunger Games” franchise has run its course, is taking another approach. They’re balancing low-budget reliables like Tyler Perry (he’ll tour with his “Boo! a Madea Halloween,” October 21) with young directors like “Whiplash” discovery Damien Chazelle’s jazz musical “La La Land” (awards-friendly December 16) starring Ryan Gosling, which singer-dancer Emma Stone described as his “love letter to L.A.” 

Lionsgate motion picture chiefs Patrick Wachsberger and Rob Friedman are making mid-range genre pictures like Emma Roberts/Dave Franco online truth-or-dare thriller “Nerve” (September 16) as well as bigger-scale fare such as Peter Berg’s true off-shore drilling drama “Deepwater Horizon” (September 30) co-starring Mark Wahlberg and Gina Rodriguez. There’s also sequels to “John Wick” starring Keanu Reeves and heist ensemble “Now You See Me 2,” which they started to screen —until a reported mysterious abandoned package caused Caesar’s to ask attendees to evacuate the theatre. By the time CinemaCon declared there was no problem, the audience had scattered. 

Which is what theaters are trying to avoid, with enhanced security to prevent shootings like the ones in Aurora and Lafayette. The last thing they want is for audiences to remain anchored in the safety of their living rooms. 

Both studios and exhibitors are upping the ante to lure crowds away from enhanced viewing options in the home, mostly via scale and scope, as cinemas add laser projectors, Dolby deepens the chroma on its screens and builds elaborate theater environments complete with Dolby Atmos, Barco Escape adds screens to the sides of auditoriums, and chains like Kansas-based Warren Theatres take Alamo Drafthouse in-theater dining to luxurious levels. That’s where the growth is. AMC’s new chairman Adam Aron (who came from luxury cruises and resorts) learned the hard way how not to innovate when his comment about allowing in-theater texting was met with heated condemnation. He quickly backed off. 

Amazon Studios, while it might seem to be an outlier, made a friendly entrance to CinemaCon with its first presentation, hosted by Roy Price and veteran exhibitor/distributor Bob Berney (“The Passion of the Christ,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “LA Vie en Rose”). They met a warm reaction, assuring the room that they would partner with theatrical distributors to lure customers to theaters with strong marketing and will respect “traditional” theatrical windows with almost all of their lineup. “A robust theatrical run is good for everyone,” said Price. “Filmmakers want to see their film in theaters. We’re a filmmaker-driven studio.” Price believes that giving creators rein to express their unique voices is the path to buzzworthy success on TV (“Transparent”) and film (Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”): “We want to provide a compelling new economic platform for independent film.” 

Berney ran through six films acquired at Sundance, including Liza Johnson’s Kevin Spacey/Michael Shannon comedy “Elvis/Nixon” (April 22), Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen comedy “Love & Friendship” (May 13) starring Kate Beckinsale, Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” documentary “Author” (about JT LeRoy) and Kenneth Lonergan’s well-reviewed Oscar-contender “Manchester by the Sea” (November 18). Berney showed a heartbreaking clip of regretful one-time lovers played by Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck.

Amazon had a good day all around as they started out the morning with the Cannes Film Festival announcing that five of their movies were in the Official Selection, from opener “Cafe Society” from Woody Allen (which Lionsgate will release in theaters) and two Jim Jarmusch entries, to Nicolas Winding Refn’s great-looking fashion-world horror flick “Neon Demon,” starring Elle Fanning. Berney beamed Refn in by Skype from Copenhagen and brought Fanning to the stage to introduce the gorgeous trailer. 

While Amazon is an online disruptor viewed with some suspicion by Hollywood—and is driving up acquisition prices for its rivals—it turns out to be a friendlier entity than The Screening Room. And as the exhibitors were applauding Amazon, they were also talking to each other and the studios about more “sophisticated” —as NATO’s Fithian put it— “smart windows.” What that means is that Paramount’s experiment with theater chains AMC and Cineplex with a recent “Paranormal Activity” sequel, which blew up when they didn’t bring more chains on board, will likely be followed with other forays into figuring out this territory.

When is a movie finished in theaters, and where does it go from there? Suddenly, thanks to Parker, exploring that terrain is far less threatening than the “radically bad model,” as one CinemaCon player put it, offering day-and-date availability of movies in the home via a third party. Parker forced people at CinemaCon to talk more constructively about what to do instead.

Let playability dictate the movie window. Some long-legged movies like “Midnight in Paris” or “Inside Out” play for months, while others burn off fast and don’t need long windows. The studios—Warner Bros.’ digital heavyweight Kevin Tsuijihara is another leader, along with Paramount’s Rob Moore—would rather do this for themselves. 

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