CinemaCon 2021 Wants to Be Exhibition’s Comeback Party, but It Could Be an Existential Crisis

In a hot Las Vegas in August, the event will present the case that there’s still enough business to sustain theatrical.
Warner Bros.

At The Big Screen Is Back, Hollywood studios showed every trailer they could — but virtually all of them were new only in the sense that we’d never seen them on the eponymous big screen. While producers and publicists did their best to whet media appetites with the prospect of moviegoing restored, the big guns belong to CinemaCon 2021. Held August 22-25 in Las Vegas, the National Association of Theater Owners will go into overdrive convincing theater owners and the rest of the world that theaters survived the pandemic to emerge in better shape than ever.

At the last CinemaCon, in 2019, studios and exhibitors approached the event with the common understanding that studios release their slates in theaters. Two years later, studios presume nothing and exhibitors try to keep pace. Theaters are no longer a given as studios determine the best way to release their films, whether it’s theaters, PVOD, streaming, or some combination thereof.

The annual exhibitor convention at Caesar’s Palace usually takes place in late March or early April, the better for distributors to promote their big summer titles. Studios and circuits will sing the “Big Screen Is Back” mantra in August, but this year’s CinemaCon is after, not before, that prime market. The hope is it will be a celebration, not a postmortem, and an assessment of how they plan to continue taking on a brave new world without the benefit of 90-day theatrical windows.

Media turns up in Vegas for the breaking news of first trailers and exclusive footage. Fingers crossed for MGM’s “House of Gucci” and the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” starring Anya Taylor-Joy from Focus Features, and from the newly minted Warner Bros. Discovery, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” starring Timothee Chalamet, and maybe, just maybe, “Matrix 4.”

Five major studios will be there: Warner Bros. Discovery, Universal and Focus, Disney with Marvel and Lucasfilm, Paramount, and Sony. Lionsgate will also be present, as well as the pending Amazon acquisition MGM/UA. On the docket: Showing love to the exhibitors beat up by pandemic shut-downs — and in some cases, the studio’s own screening policies.

At this point, theaters are humbled — and debt-ridden, thanks to heavy borrowing before and during the pandemic. Recent stock manipulations aside, the third-biggest chain, Cinemark, is in better shape than AMC (the biggest) and Regal (owned by UK’s troubled Cineworld). They’re also diplomats without portfolio: What will they do for the annual sizzle reel celebrating the prior year’s top $100-million-plus domestic performers?

If they relied on 2020, that would be a very short roster. Sony’s January release “Bad Boys for Life” was number 1 with $206 million, followed by Paramount’s President’s Day weekend opener “Sonic the Hedgehog,” which scored $146 million before the pandemic ended its run. After that, neither Warner Bros.’ “Birds of Prey” nor Universal’s “Dolittle” could qualify as a hit.

While the studios held back their most commercial titles for theaters, it’s a starkly different summer landscape. Memorial Day had a hit with “A Quiet Place Part 2” (Paramount), which will be followed by overseas smash “F9” (Universal). Meanwhile, Disney’s recent opener “Cruella,” like “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise,” is available day and date to Disney+ subscribers for an additional charge. This is the tough reality exhibitors must swallow.

“Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”

Meanwhile, 2020 was the year that China overtook North America as the world’s largest box office market, generating $2.7 billion vs. North America’s $2.3 billion, its lowest box office in 40 years. Asia’s box office is roaring back earlier than the rest of the world thanks to Japan’s $400-million anime “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” and China’s “The Eight Hundred” and “My People, My Homeland,” followed by “Bad Boys for Life” ($426 million) and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” ($363 million).

In another time, the primary concern of CinemaCon 2021 might have been whether it could catch up to Asia. This year, that’s thinking too small. The real question is, what does theatrical distribution look like, anywhere? As studios prioritize streaming, is there still enough business to support exhibition?

With theaters shut down, the pandemic gave studios license to experiment with new revenue models. Universal was first out of the gate with a swift pivot to PVOD, which angered Adam Aron, CEO of AMC. Aron later struck a deal with Universal CEO Jeff Shell for a 45-day window before PVOD, marking the end of the classic 90-day exclusive theater window. Warner Media’s Jason Kilar then announced a day-and-date model for all of 2021.

"Last Night in Soho"
“Last Night in Soho”Focus

While owner AT&T pushed Warner Media to build subscribers for HBO Max, the cost of supporting the content necessary to compete with Apple, Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon was too high. AT&T spun off Warner Media to merge with Discovery Inc. Warner Bros. Discovery is now run by Discovery CEO David Zaslav, and the town is waiting to learn what its movie release model will be.

The most crucial theatrical supplier, Disney, is also experimenting as it uses Pixar and Marvel to lure a growing base of streaming subscribers (100 million and counting). Theaters can no longer count on movies coming to them exclusively or, in the case of Pixar, at all. Even Sony — the sole major without a streaming platform — forged lucrative deals for content licensing, including one with Netflix. Not presenting at CinemaCon are Netflix, Apple, and Amazon.

While NATO is hawking record attendance for the return to CinemaCon, the number of theaters dwindle as chains shed unprofitable leases and locations. Expect more discussion of how exhibitors can find other ways to make a buck, whether selling movie screenings to groups or exhibiting non-movie digital content like sports, opera, and theater.

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. Across all markets, 55 percent are eager to return; in China, 95 percent are comfortable attending theaters now. Speaking at The Big Screen Is Back, Titelman said audiences want mask policies but “they are comfortable with loosening social distance, and when vaccines are fully available they will really be comfortable returning.”

Indeed, the biggest question is one that CinemaCon can’t answer: Will audiences come back?

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