A fractured membership, breaking rank, warring factions — no, it’s not the Republican Party. It’s CinemaCon, the annual exhibitors’ convention that will run March 27-30 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
CinemaCon is always a crucible for change in the motion picture industry. It’s a four-day snapshot of the symbiotic and sometimes difficult relationship between distributors and the National Association of Theater Owners, which represents some 40,000 movie screens in North America and cinemas in 50 countries.
However, that partnership has never been more fraught than it is now. Studios seriously flirt with bringing first-run major releases into homes, while exhibitors fight tooth and nail to get the public’s butts back into theaters: Their mutual interests are no longer the same.
One key sign: Breaking a tradition that goes back to the Jack Valenti era, MPAA chairman Christopher Dodd will not attend this year, citing personal commitments. That means John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO, will have to make the state of the industry speech solo on Tuesday. (He and Dodd did speak to the press via conference call to announce the MPAA’s early release of their annual Theatrical Market Statistics report for 2016.)
Digital has radically changed everything about how movies are produced and released. With so much competition — video games, social media, streaming, downloads — studios and theaters are forced to create new strategies that lure consumers to the multiplex and away from Amazon and Netflix.
Top of mind is whether this is the year studios will shorten the 90-day theatrical window and offer VOD movies at higher rental rates. Last year, Napster co-founder Sean Parker proposed The Screening Room, a day-and-date premium VOD service involving a $150 device and $50 fee for watching new releases. James Cameron and Christopher Nolan vocally rejected the idea, though it attracted support from figures including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Peter Jackson. Everyone will watch to see if the idea gains support.
At Warner Bros., CEO Kevin Tsujihara has been negotiating with exhibitors to make certain titles available on-demand as early as 17 days after their debut. The arrangement would involve a much higher price point for rentals and the studios would give exhibitors a percentage of digital revenues. Though a $50 per-rental price was floated initially, the number that is reportedly being considered now is $30. There have also been discussions about shortening the theatrical window to 30 days or 45 days.
Virtual reality will have a strong presence at CinemaCon, with a “Zero Gravity VR Experience” for “The Mummy” sponsored by IMAX. The “extreme stunt” will take consumers behind the scenes of the film to see what it’s like to fly four miles above sea level in a zero-gravity environment while witnessing a stunt performed by Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis.
Ultimately, CinemaCon is annual industry convention designed for the people who really, really care about making a living on the theatrical experience (sample panel: “What, When, and How: The Department of Justice’s Ruling on Closed Captioning and Audio Description”). The most sought-after information will focus on what it takes to get the most money from the most people to see the most movies.