Donna Langley, Chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, was all smiles at her studio’s CinemaCon presentation. She’s coming off an almost $5-billion year worldwide, Oscar wins for “Green Book” ($300 million worldwide) and “BlacKkKlansman,” and the explosive surprise launch of Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which scored the highest-grossing original horror opening ever, and has already collected $180 million in just two weeks.
“Audiences will show up to original movies from brilliant filmmakers as well as franchises,” Langley told the crowd before showing them a promo reel full of testimonials from the likes of Universal players Emma Thompson, Antonio Banderas, Judi Dench, Jordan Peele, Idris Elba, Seth Rogen, Jason Blum, and Tiffany Haddish.
Langley can tap a robust arsenal of product across several labels, including $6-billion animation player Illumination as well as acquisition DreamWorks Animation, horror factory Blumhouse, specialized players Working Title and Focus Features, and of course Steven Spielberg’s Amblin.
Yielding by far the best reaction of the day was the latest gear-grinding installment of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, David Leitch’s “Hobbs & Shaw” (August 2), which stars Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and “Mission: Impossible” star Vanessa Kirby as an MI6 agent, with Idris Elba doing villain honors. The movie was mainly shot in London and Johnson’s homeland of Samoa.
The first sequel to spin off from the core story was written by Chris Morgan, who wrote the last six films. The crowd went nuts as the trailer closed with a mega-stunt involved a cliffside chain of cars bringing down a giant helicopter. “Let’s put on our seatbelts for that ride,” said Langley.
Universal’s animated offerings include two recent $500-million global hits, Illumination’s “Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch” and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” Next up: “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (June 7) featuring Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart, who obligingly cavorted onstage with live white pets, a docile shih tzu and terrorized rabbit, respectively. “The good news is,” joked Hart, “pellets are coming out my ass. I’m completely off script right now. Bunnies are harmless, despite what you are watching right now. By the way, shitting before the show is a stress reliever!”
Patton Oswalt costars, with Harrison Ford making his animated film debut. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” “celebrates the love we have for our pets and the unconditional love they have for us,” said Illumination’s Chris Meledandri. “Snowball gets to be a superhero in this movie.”
Next up for Blumhouse is “Ma” (May 31) starring Octavia Spencer in her first title role, reunited with her seven-year roommate, director Tate Taylor (“The Help”). Spencer wanted to get away from wigs and costumes and lets loose with this one, terrorizing a bunch of rowdy teens. “Here’s what happens when you let Octavia turn up her fear,” said Taylor. “I’m mean and hateful, terrible and awful,” said Spencer.
Among the mid-level entries for the studio, Will Packer promoted Tina Gordon’s “Little” (April 12), which was pitched by “Blackish” star Marsai Martin when she was 10 years old, making her the youngest executive producer ever; Universal has signed her to a first-look deal. “Girls Trip” star Regina Hall stars as a bitch boss who gets her own back when she wakes up one morning as her 13-year-old self. Her assistant Issa Rae gets to wear her clothes and help her become a halfway decent human being.
Danny Boyle previewed “Yesterday” (June 28, 2019), a Richard Curtis original from Working Title about a struggling singer who gets hit by a bus during a worldwide blackout and wakes up being the only person who has ever heard of The Beatles. When he presents the greatest songs ever written as his own, he becomes a global sensation. Lily James costars with diamond-in-the-rough Himesh Patel, who can sing, play the guitar and act — and strummed and sang “Yesterday” for the Colosseum crowd.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg delivered a hilarious trailer for raunchy comedy “Good Boys” (August 16, 2019), starring a trio of trash-talking sixth graders (led by “Room” star Jacob Tremblay) who are trying to be more sophisticated about sex and everything else than they actually are.
Focus Features showed footage from Carnaval Films’ big-screen version of “Downton Abbey” (September 20), which brings back the posh Crawleys led by matriarch Maggie Smith, as well as their vast downstairs support team, as they prepare for a royal visit from the King and Queen.
“Last Christmas” (November) was written seven years ago by Emma Thompson, who sent her script by email to “It’s a Wonderful Life” fan Paul Feig, who jumped on board. Thompson plays the mother of depressed Christmas store elf Emilia Clarke, while dream date Henry Golding arrives to save her from her sad life. Expect the one new original by George Michael on the soundtrack packed with his songs to get an Oscar nod.
Written by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas, “Queen + Slim” is another unlikely romance, this time between Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, who get pulled over by a cop on their first date and wind up killing him in self-defense. They go on the run, “Sugarland Express” style.
Amblin is delivering at year’s end a much-whispered about Sam Mendes World War I movie “1917” which is supposed to be one long shot. “Immersive,” is what Langley called it. Working Title is also delivering big-scale Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats,” Tom Hooper’s follow-up to “Les Miserables,” complete with never-before-seen VFX fur applied to motion-captured actors.
Judi Dench is Old Deuteronomy, Jennifer Hudson is Grizabella, Taylor Swift is Bombalurina, Jason Derulo is Rum Tum Tugger and ballet dancer Francesa Hayward is Victoria. Other players include Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, James Corden and Idris Elba, with choreography from “Hamilton”‘s Andy Blankenbuehler. The house was brought down by Hudson stepping out in a serious white evening gown and ripping off the roof with her rendition of “Memory.” Another Oscar moment?