At CinemaCon, Studios Look Out Theatrical Windows and Say It’s Sunny

At CinemaCon, Studios Look Out Theatrical Windows and Say It's Sunny
CinemaCon, Studios Look Out Theatrical Windows and Say It's Sunny

The Screening Room founder Sean Parker wants to be the disruptor. He’s offering a way for consumers to pay $50 to watch movies at home, day and date with theaters. And if it’s ever going to happen, he needs to convince theater owners and studios to adopt his model. 

Judging by the first day of CinemaCon in Las Vegas, the old order is in no rush to embrace the whippersnapper’s vision.  

Talking to theater owners here, they see little charm in Parker’s offering. They argue that a title’s value is enhanced down the line if no one else depletes that value at the start. The money doesn’t look that good, since the Screening Room’s $50 would be shared with theaters and studios. And anyway, would you trust the guy who founded Napster?

Speaking at the exhibitor convention’s annual reveals of the previous year’s MPAA stats, NATO president John Fithian told the crowd of theater owners that fighting to “preserve the theatrical window is our highest priority.” His statement met enthusiastic applause. 

And, those MPAA stats seem to back up his stance. In 2015, the industry finally broke the $11 billion barrier in North American box office, and established a new worldwide record of $38.3 billion (up 5% from 2014). China is the top international market ($6.8 billion, up 49%, nearly half of the Asia Pacific region), while Latin America, driven by Argentina, saw huge growth.

Countries are still building theaters, which are up 8% worldwide, and people are still going to the movies, despite the competition from technology and home entertainment. As MPAA CEO Chris Dodd pointed out a press conference following his State of the Industry address, more people go to the movies than sporting events and theme parks combined.

But 3D premium prices (15% of box office) help drive that growth, and 2015 admissions, were 1.32 billion —up 4% from 2014’s depressed 1.27 million, but still down from 1.4 billion admissions in 2006. 

Fithian argued for the positive impact of a range of movies featuring diverse casts: The multi-ethnic cast of “Furious 7” helped it to over-perform worldwide, he said, while there were strong female leads in top 2015 performers like “Insurgent,” the “Hunger Games” finale, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Jurassic World,” and “50 Shades of Grey.”

Other areas of growth are among Hispanic audiences and the teen demographic, who likes to flock to movies in groups when they get tired of multi-tasking at home, said Fithian. 

Clearly, Dodd and Fithian are putting the most positive possible face on the state of exhibition, with Fithian describing the Screening Room as a “distraction.” And studios are greeting Parker with the enthusiasm that might be reserved for an uninvited salesman. At Warner Bros.’ well-received afternoon presentation (more on that later), CEO Kevin Tsujihara stated unequivocally: “I assure you we are not going to let a third party or middle man come between us.” 

Dodd and many of Fithian’s NATO members will meet with Parker during CinemaCon. But they all dislike the idea of a third-party disruptor making changes they would rather make themselves.

But will they make them? Fithian likes to talk about more sophisticated “smart windows,” but no one knows exactly what that means—except a lot of people talking behind closed doors. 

The convention launched Monday night with the Paramount presentation, at which JJ Abrams (who defended The Screening Room beforehand) was amiably introduced by Simon Pegg but did not show his “Star Trek Beyond,” the studio’s biggest title. However, Abrams did announce that the movie will adopt one of exhibition’s recent innovations in scale, Barco Escape, which offers two extra side screens to the usual one. Exhibitors were impressed by footage from the newest version of the “Ben-Hur” (August 19) chariot race, as well as a possible awards entry from Robert Zemeckis, World War II spy thriller “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard (awards-friendly Nov. 23).

Stephen Frears’ period biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins” (August 12) looks like a comeback vehicle for Hugh Grant, opposite Meryl Streep as the world’s worst opera singer, although Paramount is dating it before the fall festival circuit. Down the line, we can look forward to Denzel Washington starring in a movie version of August Wilson’s play “Fences,” in which he co-starred with Viola Davis on Broadway. 

Another long-awaited stage-to-screen movie is coming via new CinemaCon entrant STX, which is hoping to mount Barbra Streisand’s long-awaited movie musical “Gypsy,” in which she would play Mama Rose. Barry Levinson will direct. At a party following the slate presentation, motion picture chairman Adam Fogelson reminded that Streisand was the biggest record seller of the year along with Taylor Swift, and cited Universal’s”Mamma Mia!” and “Les Miz” as precedents for global musical success. 

STX is targeting the opportunity left open by the tentpole-driven studios for mid-budget movies like Joel Edgerton’s $5 million thriller-turned-$44 million-hit, “The Gift.” (Green-lighter Fogelson’s cap is $80 million.) Fogelson loves comedies, and offers a new one produced by James L. Brooks, written and directed by first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig, “The Edge of Seventeen,” starring Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as an angst-ridden teen and Kyra Sedgwick as her clueless mother. “I never read something so honest and truthful,” said Steinfeld.

From the writers of “The Hangover,” John Lucas and Scott Moore, comes “Bad Moms” (July 29), another raunchy comedy starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Christina Applegate. Let’s just say that Fogelson was the champion of “Bridesmaids” and “Ted.”

The classier entry is clearly the first movie to be greenlit by STX, “The Free State of Jones” (June 26), a 10-year passion project based on a true story written and directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey as a rebel soldier in the Civil War who fights for what is right. Gugu Mbatha-Raw costars. Fogelson screened a harrowing battle sequence; I look forward to seeing the rest. “It was on the page,” said McConaughey. “This man lived.”

Also coming is pick-up “Desierto” (September 13) a gritty action drama directed by Jonas Cuaron (co-writer of “Gravity”) and starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal as a man crossing the Mexican border who runs up against vigilante Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And in the pipeline is a new project from Sylvester Stallone, who made an appearance at CinemaCon. Not his first, and likely not his last.

Also telling is the fact that 18-month old STX is backed by Chinese investors and has pacted with China for co-productions. Not a bad start in today’s global marketplace. 

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