Just eight months after the National Association of Theatre Owners last held its annual CinemaCon trade show, exhibitors and studios are gathering again in Las Vegas in a market that has vastly changed yet is still mixed with optimism and uncertainty.
As COVID-19 infections have declined in the U.S., customer confidence in moviegoing has risen and some films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” have succeeded without any asterisks for pandemic-dampened box office performance.
But with more competition than ever from streaming services and the film production pipeline still being rebuilt after pandemic shutdowns, the next year will see theaters make a push to reach pre-pandemic revenues despite 2022 ticket sales that still amount to roughly half of what was seen in 2017-19. What unfolds over the next two years will determine the new normal for moviegoing.
Here are some of the things to watch at CinemaCon as it unfolds:
1. Sony takes a victory lap
Sony isn’t done singing the praises of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and its $1.89 billion box office haul, and CinemaCon will be the perfect place for Sony Pictures chair Tom Rothman to take a victory lap in front of cinema owners eager to hear why movie theaters are still so vital in a post-COVID world.
Because Sony doesn’t have a streaming service of its own (unless you count selling movies like “Cinderella” and “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” to Amazon Prime and other streamers), they’re the perfect people to headline CinemaCon’s opening night and tout how much they value theaters. In fact, Sony’s execs last year did just that when they pointed to the success of 20th Century’s “Free Guy” as an example of why theatrical exclusivity still matters.
“That film has done great business because, No. 1, it’s terrific; and No. 2, you can’t watch it at home on television! Go f—ing figure!” Sony’s Tom Rothman said at Caesar’s Palace last August. “You remember Bill Clinton and ‘It’s the economy, stupid?’ It’s the window, stupid!”
Well, now Sony can tow the same line but with its own films, not just “Spider-Man” but also Tom Holland’s “Uncharted,” which has made $389.5 million worldwide and is likely to get a sequel, as well as “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” which cracked the $500 million global mark. And the studio will proudly stand behind theatrical exclusives like “Bullet Train,” TriStar’s “The Woman King” and even more web slinging with “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: Part One,” which may still get a sneak preview even as it has been moved to summer 2023.
2. The Discovery era begins at Warner Bros.
CinemaCon will be the first public appearance of Warner Bros.’ theatrical execs since the completion of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger this month and the arrival of new CEO David Zaslav. It will also come as Warner moves on from its 2021 day-and-date experiment with releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. While the former may be noted in the execs’ speeches, don’t expect any mention of the latter.
Instead, Warner’s team will likely point to the success of “The Batman” — just the fifth film in the past year to crack $750 million worldwide — as an example of the studio’s commitment to boosting theaters with the biggest blockbusters.
To that end, expect a DC-heavy presentation with sneak peeks of Dwayne Johnson’s “Black Adam” and “DC League of Super-Pets,” as well as this holiday season’s “Shazam: Fury of the Gods,” which Warner insiders say is pretty much in the can. Among the non-superhero fare will be Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” biopic and Olivia Wilde’s New Line thriller “Don’t Worry Darling.”
3. What big surprises are in store?
Will CinemaCon finally give us the first look at “Avatar 2,” which James Cameron has been working on for over a decade at 20th Century? That one could be the white whale for just how long we’ve been hearing about the sequels and how much hangs on their success.
What about Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Lionsgate’s “John Wick: Chapter 4,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” for Universal or Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” for Paramount? Any could be fairly Earth-shattering trailer debuts should their respective studios keep them as CinemaCon exclusives or decide to subsequently drop them online.
Previous years have yielded some other surprises too, with star-studded appearances during presentations or other industry news, such as when the Erwin Brothers announced their own Kingdom Story Company during Lionsgate’s presentation. Warner Bros. in the past leaned on early looks at “The Matrix: Resurrections,” and we may get some clarity on release strategies for various studios.
4. The streaming elephant in the room
Streaming has always been a touchy issue at CinemaCon, with Netflix as the big boogeyman. But even as a good number of moviegoers have come back since theaters reopened, many wonder if COVID quarantines have led others to kick the theater-going habit and if studios will make long-term shifts in their distribution plans to meet the drop in demand.
While Disney may be about to pack theaters yet again with Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” theater execs are still smarting about the company’s decision to pull the Pixar animated film “Turning Red” from theaters for an exclusive streaming launch on Disney+.
Expect Disney’s execs to reaffirm their commitment to exhibition on the Caesars Palace stage, but how many attendees will be thinking about CEO Bob Chapek’s comments on an investor call about how the success of “Encanto” on streaming proved that theaters aren’t the only way to start a franchise?
5. Are blockbusters the only game in town?
The biggest question that’s hanging over the industry is whether anything outside of the biggest franchise tentpoles can make any serious cash in this post-shutdown theatrical market. Exhibitors’ hopes of return to pre-pandemic revenue levels depend on that answer.
In the past 13 months, though, theaters have found the box office charts languish for weeks with poor revenue until a big blockbuster spiked ticket sales again. Such was the case in Q1, as the $134 million opening of “The Batman” bailed out a box office that had grossed less than $800 million in North America through January and February.
Even now, the $1.71 billion domestic box office to date for 2022 is roughly half the total grossed in 2017. A summer filled with films like “Doctor Strange 2” and “Jurassic World: Dominion” should help bridge that gap somewhat, but the sheer number of theatrical releases this year is still well below pre-pandemic levels.
While that’s partly due to ongoing COVID delays and bottlenecks in film production, some studios like Warner Bros. and Searchlight have pivoted to releasing fewer films theatrically, with some mid-budget mature titles and indie acquisitions going directly to services like HBO Max or Hulu instead. That puts more pressure on theatrical releases like “Elvis” and “Downton Abbey: A New Era” to bring back older moviegoers. And if they don’t come back, next year’s CinemaCon may arrive with a recognition that the business has been permanently diminished.