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‘We Are Back! We Are Back!’ At CinemaCon, Exhibitors Strike a Tone Both Conciliatory and Triumphant

The attempt to rally the crowd in Las Vegas fell a little flat on day 2 of the conference, but leaders of the MPA and NATO found plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

John Fithian, left, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), and Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), address the audience during CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of NATO, at Caesars Palace, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

John Fithian, left, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), and Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), address the audience during CinemaCon 2019

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

“We are back! We are back!”

On day 2 of CinemaCon 2022, Marcus Theaters CEO Rolando Rodriguez was on stage at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace to introduce Motion Picture Association CEO Charlie Rivkin and his annual state of the Industry presentation. But before he did, Rodriguez asked everyone to stand, the house lights came up, and he said, “I want us to chant three words so loud they hear us out in the casino!”

He then shared the three words and the assembled chanted them back three times, followed by some modest cheers. All told, Rodriguez’s attempt to whip the crowd into a frenzy fell a little flat. However, the real action is not in the Colosseum, or even in the studio dog-and-pony shows that began with the Sony presentation Monday night. The future of theatrical will be determined by what happens behind closed doors as top studio executives from Warner Bros., Disney, Paramount, Universal, and more meet with the exhibitor chains and map out what comes next.

Tuesday morning’s annual State of the Industry speeches, made by Rivkin and National Association of Theater Owners CEO John Fithian and provided to press in advance, focused on brand-building and fighting piracy. Notably absent were complaints about the studios’ treatment of their exhibition partners in the last two years, as they ditched the 90-day theatrical exclusive window and constantly shuffled release dates, which often included giving their content to streamers.

“This week is all about the future of this industry,” said Fithian. “There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what is ahead of us.” The NATO chief cited a “beyond robust” slate for 2022, and indeed, Marvel’s “Doctor Strange 2,” the return of Pixar with “Lightyear,” and a “Jurassic Park” sequel offer reasons to be cheerful. The presence of so many top studio executives, Fithian said, “signals a renewed commitment to the important role that moviegoing plays in the industry ecosystem.”

Schadenfreude about Netflix’s recent dramatic fall from grace is rampant in Hollywood, but any reduction in the existential threat is counterbalanced by the urgent need for the exhibition business to get its own house in order. The theaters need movies and while Fithian loves blockbusters, he said, “mid-range titles and films aimed specifically at families are crucial as well. It’s not rocket science: More movies results in more box office.”

Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of the Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, waves to the audience during the Sony Pictures Entertainment presentation at CinemaCon 2022, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace, Monday, April 25, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of the Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, waves to the audience during the Sony Pictures Entertainment presentation at CinemaCon 2022

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

NATO members held studios to the 90-day window for years — until the pandemic gave distributors leeway to experiment, crunch numbers, and pivot to streaming. Even with reduced pressure from Netflix, the studios are still playing footsie with Wall Street investors looking at their streaming stats.

Most theatrical windows now range from 17-45 days, but Fithian chose to emphasize that windows still exist after Warners’ 2021 experiment with day-and-date releasing on HBO Max. “We’re thrilled distributors are releasing movies with windows, and studios and exhibitors are working together,” he said diplomatically. “Simultaneous release is dead as a serious business model and piracy is what killed it… evolving periods of exclusivity maximize revenue and increase perceived value to consumers. Theatrical windows grow our entire industry.”

In fact, Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav emphasized during Discover’s Q1 Tuesday’s earnings call that he’s not ready “to really collapse the entire motion picture business on streaming,” he said. “When you open a movie in theaters, it has a whole stream of monetization. More importantly, it’s marketed. It builds a brand so when it does go to a streaming service there’s a view that (the title) has a higher quality that benefits the streaming service.”

AMC and other big chains may have taken on more debt during the pandemic, but only 2 percent of domestic screens shuttered since March 2020. Mexico-based Cinepolis, the world’s third-largest exhibitor, grew over the course of the pandemic, from 624 theaters and 5,800 screens in 2019 to over 800 theaters and 6,661 screens.

LIGHTYEAR, slated to open in theaters on June 17, 2022, is a sci-fi action-adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans)—the hero who inspired the toy. The film reveals how a young test pilot became the Space Ranger that we all know him to be today. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Lightyear” is slated to open in theaters on June 17

PIXAR

This week, as Cinépolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez Magaña goes into meetings with the studios, he told IndieWire, he’s hoping to brainstorm “how we can entice those audiences back.” One chicken-and-egg answer is simple: more movies, and not just comic-book movies. “One film is not enough [for] people that like drama or period pieces,” he said. “Comedies could start coming back.” Ramirez wants to convince the studios to supply “a more consistent flow of content, so that we don’t have the gaps and ups and downs of the past few years. But that’s coming to an end.”

For his part, the MPA’s Rivkin focused on stats that combine the global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market, which grew to $99.7 billion, a 27 percent increase vs. 2021, and barely overtook the pre-pandemic take for 2019. In the first quarter of 2022, the domestic box office surpassed $1 billion.

But Rivkin devoted the lion’s share of his remarks to the MPA’s dramatic efforts to wage war, backed by the 40-member Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, against sophisticated “stream-ripping” digital global pirates backed by “mobsters,” he said. “On average, pre-release piracy can take away as much as 20 percent of box office revenue — your revenue.” Beating pirates back, he said, requires “a Marvel Avengers team.”

Tony Maglio contributed to this report.

Full speech from Rivkin follows on the next page.

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