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‘Wicked’ spectacles, merger gossip and movie industry woes at CinemaCon 2024

Christi Carras – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Movie theaters need more movies. Will they ever get enough to truly thrive again?

That was the central question overhanging CinemaCon 2024, the annual convention bringing together Hollywood studios and multiplex operators in Las Vegas this week.

Exhibitors pleaded with the major studios to release more films of varying budgets on the big screen, while studios made the case that their upcoming slates are robust enough to keep them in business.

Once again, CinemaCon, where studios trot out executives and movie stars to pitch their upcoming blockbusters, arrived at a particularly challenging time for the film industry.

After weathering a devastating pandemic that shut down theaters for months, two of the most essential parts of the Hollywood machine, writers and actors, went on strike. The work stoppages — which lasted a combined six months — prompted the leading entertainment companies to push a number of titles to 2025 from 2024, disrupting the supply chain and sparking widespread anxiety in the exhibition community.

Box-office revenue in the U.S. and Canada is expected to total about $8.5 billion, which is down from $9 billion in 2023 and a far cry from the pre-pandemic yearly tallies that nearly reached $12 billion.

“It’s not enough for us to simply sit back and want more movies,” said Michael O’Leary, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, during Tuesday’s state-of-the-industry address at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace. “We must work with distribution to get more movies of all sizes to the marketplace.”

Though a fuller release schedule is expected for 2025, talk of budget cuts, greater industry consolidation and corporate mergers has forced exhibitors to prepare for the possibility of a near future with fewer studios making fewer movies.

In the extravagant banquet and trade show halls of Caesars Palace, theater operators groaned about 2024 being painted as yet another “lost year” for cinema — determined in spite of the grim discourse to remain optimistic.

“All indications are the rest of the year is going to be a lot better,” said David Fetters, vice president of West Mall Theatres in Minnesota and South Dakota. “The product we’re seeing here is looking outstanding.”

The studios tried to give exhibitors something to hope for during their CinemaCon presentations — hyping their movie lineups, bringing out filmmakers and cast members, pulling silly stunts, and playing sizzle reels, sneak peeks, trailers and, in some cases, entire features for their industry audience.

‘Wicked’ brings down the house

While promoting their 2024-25 programming, the studios pulled out plenty of stops.

Distribution executives at Warner Bros. delivered their opening remarks dressed as Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice; Dwayne Johnson joined a Polynesian dance troupe while introducing Disney’s “Moana 2”; and the head of distribution at Paramount entered the theater in full “Gladiator” armor on a gold chariot.

But Universal’s presentation of “Wicked” — director Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical — took the cake. Convention attendees arrived at their seats to find a surprise in their cup holders: roses that illuminated for a technicolor light show set to an instrumental medley of “Wicked” songs. After the overture, a pre-taped message to all “CinemaConians” from Jeff Goldblum’s imposing Wizard of Oz played onscreen, and Goldblum took the stage in real life.

He was later joined by Michelle Yeoh (Madame Morrible), Jonathan Bailey (Fiyero) producer Marc Platt and Chu, who fought back tears while talking about casting the film’s leading witches. On cue, Glinda and Elphaba themselves — Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo — emerged from the wings to thunderous applause.

Like Chu, Grande was overcome with emotion and paused briefly to compose herself while delivering her remarks.

Other pictures teased during the studio presentations included Universal’s “Despicable Me 4,” Warner Bros.’ “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” and “Joker: Folie à Deux,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place: Day One” and “Transformers One,” and Disney’s “Inside Out 2” and “Deadpool & Wolverine.”

Paramount deal looms

Amid the displays of corporate harmony, it was hard to ignore the elephant in the convention center: a potential merger between Paramount Global and David Ellison’s production company, Skydance.

Shares of Paramount Global — home of Paramount Pictures, CBS and several other legacy brands and franchises — took a nosedive Wednesday after news that a group of of the company’s directors are stepping down amid merger discussions.

This would be only the latest Hollywood merger in a string of deals, including Disney’s acquisition of Fox in 2019 and Warner Bros.’ union with Discovery in 2022.

When asked about the theatrical implications of another studio sale in an already rapidly consolidating industry, National Association of Theatre Owners President Michael O’Leary and Motion Picture Association Chairman Charles Rivkin largely waved it off.

“There’s always other things that we can do as an industry association to strengthen our industry, and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” Rivkin said during a CinemaCon news conference.

Rather than avoiding the topic during the studio’s CinemaCon presentation on Thursday, Paramount Pictures chief Brian Robbins handled the situation with humor.

“There’s been a lot of speculation around our parent company around [mergers and acquisitions],” Robbins said before joking that Paramount’s head of domestic distribution, Chris Aronson, “has now thrown his hat into the ring as a bidder.”

“He’s starting a Kickstarter campaign,” Robbins continued as the crowd chuckled.

Japanese cinema and faith-based content reign

As the domestic film business has been thrown into turmoil in recent years, Japanese cinema and faith-based content have been two of movie theaters’ saving graces.

Industry leaders kicked off CinemaCon on Tuesday by singing the praises of Sony-owned anime distributor Crunchyroll’s hits — including the latest “Demon Slayer” installment. 

Mitchel Berger, senior vice president of global commerce at Crunchyroll, said Tuesday that the global anime business generated $14 billion a decade ago and is projected to generate $37 billion next year.

“Anime is red hot right now,” Berger said. “Fans have known about it for years, but now everyone else is catching up and recognizing that it’s a cultural, economic force to be reckoned with.”

Last year, event-cinema company Fathom Events decided to expand its annual Studio Ghibli series, screening “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and other Hayao Miyazaki classics for five nights each instead of just one or two. Fathom Events Chief Executive Ray Nutt said that the extended runs allowed those titles to gross 142% more than they had in the past.

“Anime was one that did very well for us,” Nutt said. “The team is really good at sourcing content and then figuring out where the audiences drive tickets.”

Another type of product buoying the exhibition industry right now is faith-based programming, shepherded in large part by “Sound of Freedom” distributor Angel Studios.

During its presentation on Wednesday, Angel Studios unveiled its lineup of “stories that amplify light,” including an animated feature telling the biblical tale of David and a live-action drama about a German pastor who conspires against the Nazis during World War. II.

“Some of the faith-based things, especially in our part of the country — the Midwest — have had a lot of good traction,” Fetters said.

Nutt added that Fathom Events has also had “huge success” connecting with faith-based audiences by screening content such as episodes of “The Chosen,” a drama series chronicling the life of Jesus Christ. The latest season of the show generated $32 million at the box office, according to Nutt.

Exhibitors make plea for more movies … and flexible windows

The greatest challenge facing theaters right now is a dearth of theatrical releases, exhibitors say. Theater owners urged studio executives at CinemaCon to put more films in theaters — and not just big-budget tent poles timed for summer movie season and holiday weekends.

“There’s been a bit of a shortage of good content because of the strikes and that sort of thing,” said Mark Shaw, owner of Shaw Theatres in Singapore. “And also, during the pandemic, we lost some of the audience. Trying to get that audience back into theaters is a bit of a challenge.”

“Whenever we have a [blockbuster] film — whether it be ‘Barbie’ or ‘Super Mario’ … records are set,” added Bill Barstow, co-founder of ACX Cinemas in Nebraska. “But we just don’t have enough of them.”

During an industry think-tank panel on Wednesday, Disney distribution executive Cathleen Taff defended the company’s decision to delay certain movies — including the animated film “Elio” and a live-action remake of “Snow White” — to 2025, explaining that at least some of those titles were not finished in time for a 2024 release.

“From a studio perspective … we need to walk in tandem together,” Taff said.

“We have to pick some good dates and we had to do those shifts. And of course we thought about the theaters, but the reality is we’re not going to release an unfinished film.”

An additional issue affecting owners of independent theaters and smaller chains is studio-imposed three-week minimum runs for major movies. Multiple exhibitors told The Times that these businesses can’t afford to let one movie to take up a screen for three weeks because there simply isn’t enough population where they operate to fill seats for that long.

“If you run it for two weeks, the community has already seen it,” said Colleen Barstow, vice president of ACX Cinemas.

“There is no need to require three-week or longer commitments,” said Chris Johnson, chief executive of Classic Cinemas in Illinois. “If you have a hit, we will hold it.”

The next frontier: ‘alternative content’

One way that exhibitors are trying to fill the void of studio releases is by showing “alternative content” — from reissues of beloved films and screenings of TV shows to musical performances and sporting events.

The best example of this phenomenon is AMC Theatres’ distribution of Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” and Beyonce’s “Renaissance.”

Fathom Events, which has been in the business of alternative content for decades, is going further by attaching live and pre-recorded Q&As to their screenings, as well as handing out collectible merchandise as an extra incentive for audiences.

“You go to go to a regular movie, you buy the ticket, you watch the movie — I don’t mean to demean the movie experience by any stretch of imagination — but that’s pretty much it,” Nutt said. “With us, you are going to … get something special.”

Larger companies such as AMC have been partnering with studios to level up their merchandise game as well. See: the infamous “Dune 2” popcorn bucket, which inspired Disney to promise at CinemaCon to deliver a must-have “Deadpool 3” popcorn bucket.

“There are some studios that inadvertently make crude and rude popcorn buckets,” joked Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige during Disney’s presentation. “And then there are popcorn buckets designed by Deadpool.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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