After an eventful morning at the annual theater convention CinemaCon — which included a surprise award presentation to the retiring MPAA ratings czar Joan Graves, who climbed up a flight of stairs to the stage from the audience and then dramatically fell on her head midway down, resulting in a bruised forehead, stitches, and a brief hospital stay — NATO and MPAA chiefs John Fithian and Charles Rivkin met with the press. And at the end of the meeting, Fithian was fuming that most of the questions were about streaming behemoth Netflix, and not about the record 2018 box office.
Yes, ticket sales and attendance were up ($11.9 billion domestic, $41.7 billion global) among all genders and ethnic groups. And among the year’s top worldwide grossers in the annual CinemaCon sizzle reel were action-heavy comic-book epics “Aquaman,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Venom,” “Black Panther,” “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” “Deadpool 2” and animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” music movies “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born,” animated sequels “Hotel Transylvania: Summer Vacation,” “Incredibles 2” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” live-action sequels “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “The Grinch,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Fifty Shades of Freed,” “Transformers: Bumblebee,” and originals “The Meg” and “Ready Player One.”
Many of the questions were about Netflix, but that doesn’t mean that the two men answered them. Netflix is the proud sixth member of the MPAA, joining forces with the other five member studios — and Rivkin called Netflix a studio — to fight piracy and share in whatever trade deal the MPAA wrings out of China.
Both men said upbeat things about all the reasons why it’s to everyone’s benefit to get along with Netflix. And they kept all the anecdotal meetings between Netflix and NATO and MPAA members strictly behind the scenes. As the head of a trade association, Fithian can’t talk about windows or what individual distributors and exhibitors are discussing. And as for the Department of Justice warning the Academy about issuing any anti-competitive windows demands to streamers like Netflix after their upcoming eligibility rules discussions — well, Rivkin threw that issue back to the Academy.
As for the windows themselves, they’re all over the place, said Fithian, and that 90-day window is just an average. “It depends on release patterns,” he said. As far as he is concerned, six streaming companies (Netflix, Apple, Hulu, WarnerMedia, Universal, Disney+) and a consolidated Disney/Fox is a good thing, because Disney has so many tentpoles to release that it doesn’t need to change the release window.
“The Disney company is the largest supplier of content, they have a bunch of big movies,” he said. “They have no desire to change how they release movies at all. In fact we’re feeling good about the window right now, with the strength of the box office, and streaming is going to go all kinds of places… Filmmakers want a theatrical release, unless they want to go to the home. I do not feel pressure at all.”
The day started with a moving statement from “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu about why he chose a theatrical distributor over Netflix.
“The choice to some of us was very obvious,” he told the exhibitors at the Colosseum. “If we wanted to affect culture on a global stage and be part of a dialogue we felt urgently there was only one way to present our movie: theatrically. No other medium in the world forces people to leave their homes, fight through traffic, and stand on line to get into a theater, where they turn off the lights and tell a story the way only cinema does.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” played and played, all over the world, turning Constance Wu and her castmates into movie stars. (Henry Golding popped up on stage later that morning for the STX presentation of Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen.”)
Rivkin reminded the Colosseum audience that both the theatrical and home entertainment sectors improved strongly in 2018 and that representatives from 80 countries were attending CinemaCon.
“Change is not always easy,” he said in his NATO speech. “But it takes us forward throughout those changes and the ones to come.” He mentioned the “recliner revolution,” and movie theaters containing restaurants and bars, bowling alleys and kid play areas.
In his speech, Fithian spoke of diversity as the clear driver for the record box office, with a boost from successful theater loyalty programs “to cater to individual audiences and preferences.”
As large media companies look to establish direct relationships with consumers, he said, “there’s more competition for stars and talent…How does any movie stand out against the endless choices in the home? A robust theatrical release provides prestige that cannot be replicated. Some will go straight to the home and skip theatrical. But all we ask is that powerful movies in all genres made by content creators and shown on the big screen be given time to reach their full potential in theaters before heading to the home.” (Rousing applause.)