“We are back!” said Arnold Schwarzenegger as he opened The Big Screen Is Back, a straightforward, if rare, collaboration among 13 distributors looking to grab some media coverage from 34 masked and distanced members of the press. The National Association of Theater Owners, the Motion Picture Association, and CAA, along with a team of top marketers and publicists, mounted a May 19 presentation at the AMC in Century City that ran over three and a half hours.
Several studios provided sizzle reels, but most of the trailers were familiar. Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (June 11, Warner Bros.) launched the show with the first eight minutes of the film, which will open the Tribeca Film Festival in June. “l and Lin-Manuel Miranda knew we wanted to use every fiber of the cinema experience to show Washington Heights and introduce it to the world and make it feel like home,” said Chu in a video, “and show all the colors and shapes and sizes and hopes and dreams.”
Media also previewed Disney’s “Cruella” (May 28), which actually had a live premiere this week. “I want to see how this original story unfolds on the big screen,” said star Emma Stone in a video intro. Other stars did the same, including Ryan Reynolds, who has two flicks this summer (Shawn Levy’s Disney comedy “Free Guy” and “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” Lionsgate), Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson (Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” August 13), Henry Golding (Paramount’s G.I. Joe origin myth, “Snake Eyes,” July 23), John Krasinski (“A Quiet Place Part 2”), and Jennifer Lopez (Lionsgate’s “Shotgun Wedding”): “I’ll see you at the movies!”
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the theaters,” said Schwarzenegger, crediting not only all the people who work on movies, but the 5,800 theaters, 40,000 screens (pre-pandemic figures) and 153,000 cinema employees who “make it possible to have this great big joy ride,” he said. “In this pandemic year, all the people who watched movies on their iPod and phone were missing all the VFX and special effects, all that great stuff we usually see on the big screen.”
“The return of moviegoing is critical for our studio partners,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chairman of NATO, and CEO of Marcus Theatres, “not just for the theatrical bottom line, but it’s important to our economy. The pandemic has turned business models upside down.” He specifically cited Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s comments last week, saying that “as pandemic conditions improve, Disney hopes to return to fuel the theatrical exhibition business.” Disney is the lifeblood of the theater business, generating $11.9 billion worldwide in 2019, but has turned away from theaters to support Disney+.
J.J. Abrams introduced a sweet short about Miss Kitty, an 86-year-old veteran AMC West Village theater worker, and offered up something he once heard on the radio about the relationships people have to TV and the movies. “With TV, the relationship is you’re the parent and it’s the child,” he said. “It’s in your house and you control it, change it, in the context of the home. With the movies you’re the child, it’s the parent, it’s controlling you, taking you where it wants to take you. I think we all want to be kids again.” Abrams thinks the world will open up again like it did after the 1918 pandemic with the Roaring Twenties. “There will be a hunger to live again,” he said.
Ethan Titelman of NRG, the largest market research agency, interviewed 1 million people in 13 countries and found that 70 percent are comfortable going back vs. 23 percent in April 2020. Across all markets, 55 percent are eager to return, he said. In China, 95 percent are comfortable attending theaters now. “While audiences want mask policies in place,” he said, “they are comfortable with loosening social distance, and when vaccines are fully available they will really be comfortable returning.”
This event was mounted for the press, but various marketing and distribution heads hummed the usual exhibition mantra about the irreplaceable big-scale communal theater experience, undistracted in the dark. Bringing the most enthusiastic applause was an extended clip of a cliff-hanging car chase from Justin Lin’s “F9,” the latest in Universal’s $6 billion global franchise, which is already making big bucks in Korea, opens in China Friday, and stateside June 25. “We’re ready to make you believe again,” said Vin Diesel in the intro, “because nobody does a comeback like the movies.”
Marvel president Kevin Feige made no bones about his allegiance to theater going. “Marvel movies are made to be seen on the big screen,” he said. “For each one we set out to to create a visually spectacular experience. It’s the best way to see a Marvel movie. See ‘Black Widow’ on the biggest screen you can possibly find. The time has finally come to be part of the action once again.” (“Black Widow,” like “Jungle Cruise,” will also be available day and date to Disney+ subscribers for an additional charge.)
That’s the shadow hanging over exhibition, as the studios become less important to the bigger Hollywood economy and the once-primary theatrical engine for ancillary markets is sidelined by the current rush to PVOD and streaming. The studios are likely saving their big guns (James Bond and “Dune,” anyone?) for a week of special events called Cinema Week starting June 22, as well as this year’s long-delayed exhibitor convention CinemaCon (August 23-26) at the usual location at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Overshadowing the proceedings was the knowledge that many of these executives, from MGM to Warner Bros., do not know who their boss will be tomorrow.
Searchlight’s newly promoted bosses David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield introed two Sundance 2021 pickups, the Questlove documentary “Summer of Soul” (July 2) and Rebecca Hall psychological thriller “The Night House” (August 20), “the kind of movie made to be seen in a movie theater, a feeling that you can’t replicate on your couch,” said Hall in a video.
Clearly, indies are important suppliers to the theaters as they come back. Lisa Bunnell, distribution president for Focus Features, choked up during her speech. “It’s important to have that human connection with people,” she said. “Without that, why do we make the movies? We were able to release 12 movies during the pandemic, and it was not just a bullshit throwaway. We went out there and did the marketing and theatrical campaigns as best we could during a difficult period of time.” Focus has two Edgar Wright movies, a “Sparks” music documentary (June 18) and “Last Night in Soho” (October). “Movies made us cry and laugh and feel emotions and they have the power to heal us and bring us back together again,” said Wright on video from London.
Also coming is Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” (July 30), a thriller starring Matt Damon as an out-of-work Oklahoma oil rig worker who travels to a Marseilles prison to exonerate his daughter (Abigail Breslin) of a murder she didn’t commit.
A24 promoed Janicza Bravo’s twitter-thread-turned-movie “Zola” (June 30), and David Lowery’s Arthurian saga “The Green Knight,” starring a sword-wielding Dev Patel (July 30). IFC Films showcased Australian hit “The Dry” (May 21), starring Eric Bana, Nicole Riegel’s 16 mm “Holler” starring Jessica Barden as a scrap-metal worker, Josh Ruben’s horror comedy “Werewolves Within,” and horror flick “Demonic” from Neill Blomkamp, who said, “I want people to be in a state of panic. This may happen, something that brings me glee, strangely.”
Sony Pictures Classics sent trailers for Sundance breakouts “Nine Days” (July 30), starring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, and Heidi Ewing’s true gay romance “I Carry You With Me” (June 25), Ty Roberts’ period football drama “12 Mighty Orphans” starring Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall, and artworld documentary “The Lost Leonardo” (August 13).
Neon promoted summer releases from Mexican Michel Franco, who directed the proletarian uprising thriller “New Order” (May 21), which won the Venice Silver Lion, Jumila Wignot’s Sundance dance doc “Ailey” (July 23), editor-director Michael Sarnoski’s Nicolas Cage thriller “Pig,” about a former chef who lives in the woods with his porcine truffle hunter — until it is stolen, and debuted a trailer for “The Year of the Everlasting Storm,” seven stories by auteurs including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Laura Poitras, and Jafar Panahi.
A strong featurette for Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” marks MGM/UA’s big title for August 13, starring Franklin’s hand-picked actress-singer, Jennifer Hudson, who sings live and had to learn piano as the Queen of Soul, Broadway star Audra McDonald as her mother, and Forest Whitaker as her powerful preacher father. “This is a heavy life to portray and I wanted to honor that,” said Hudson in the featurette. She launched the trailer on Good Morning America, singing with a gospel choir. August was a strong launchpad for “The Butler” and “The Help,” among other films.
Sony offered slim pickings: live-action “Peter Rabbit 2” with Domhnall Gleeson and a bunch of CG rabbits, and “Hotel Transylvania Transformania,” plus sequels “Don’t Breathe 2” and “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (July 16), while promising that the “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” trailer is tracking well with over 1 billion views.
Also in the offing is a new online cinema reference: the Summer Movie Guide, which lists 63 films so far. “Because it’s a digital living document,” said its creator, marketer Madelyn Hammond, “the information is accurate, with a poster, synopsis, link to the trailer, and release date.” It’s open to streamers, specialty, and studio distributors. “The only requirement is that it’s opening on the big screen.”
In closing remarks, horror-maestro Jason Blum said: “If you told me right now to turn down the lights and show me any movies that were previewed today, I would stay and take that two-hour journey, knowing it might shift my perspective, might move me to laughter or make me cry or scare the crap out of me, or show me something profound about the human condition. That’s the heart of our business.”