It’s been two brutal pandemic years for the movie industry and there was one credo – nay, prayer – on everyone’s lips at CinemaCon, the annual trade show for theatrical exhibitors in Las Vegas: “We’re back!”
I mean, are we? It’s possible, because the movies looked pretty good, but the box office for last year was still only about half of what it was in 2019, before the pandemic.
Ah, before the pandemic. Back then, distributors and exhibitors were in a standoff, as theater owners held a death grip on their demand for a 90-day exclusive window for movies in theaters before heading to streaming. Netflix, with its for instant bingeability, was breathing down everyone’s necks.
The pandemic solved all that. Exhibitors facing lockdown and public fear stood by as one entertainment conglomerate after another launched a streaming service, or poured money into an existing one. All of Warner’s movies got swallowed up into HBOMax. Goodbye, windows.
Now, CinemaCon proclaimed, windows are back. Two years on, we have too many streaming services. Too much mediocre product as the streaming wars rage. And – look! – Tom Cruise is back and so is Avatar! Long story short – day and date got a run, and now will get a retool. The main thing is- the movies have to be really great. The next several months will tell.
Here are my takeaways from CinemaCon 2022.
1. Big movies are back
People are starting to return to the movie theater but the business has to have a great summer for a convincing rebound. Four packed days of presentation convinced me, in fact, that there are a lot of good movies on the way, from big-budget movies I’d never watch – Disney’s “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which opens this weekend – to big-budget movies I might (“Jurassic World Dominion”). Originality is still a problem. An awful lot of them are sequels or prequels or franchises, which has been the lot of Hollywood for decades.
“It’s been a couple of really dark years,” said John Fithian, CEO and president of the National Association of Theater Owners, who I talked to for our podcast, TheWrap-Up. “But the sense we’re getting in walking the hallways with 3,000 theater owners and studio executives is a real high level of enthusiasm for what’s about to come.”
2. Jordan Peele, keep ‘em coming
The counter to Point One above. Jordan Peele writes and directs original stories and his new one for Universal, “Nope,” looks as good as “Get Out” and “Us.” Except it’s on horses. Nice! Also, Olivia Wilde has written and directed a movie, “Don’t Worry Darling” starring Florence Pugh for Warner Bros. that’s a thriller but also looks funny. Intriguing! Opening the door to these filmmakers means new voices, different takes than the same old, same old and this leads me to…
3. Diversity makes for better movies
Billy Eichner – who knew? – has written a movie to be released by Universal about a love story between two men called “Bros” that looks funny and smart. Judd Apatow produced. I think there might even be a non-virtuous gay man in it. Also, there’s a hilarious Philippine (yes) comedy coming from Jo Koy, called “Easter Sunday” which has strong “Big Fat Greek Wedding” vibes. And Sony’s TriStar teased “The Woman King,” an African historical drama starring Viola Davis as the leader of the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female military regiment that fought against French colonizers in the 19th century as well as George Tillman Jr.’s upcoming biopic about champion boxer and grill salesman George Foreman. #Progress
4. The superhero blockbuster stuff is getting boring
Too many clips and trailers seemed to show the same dynamic: Big monsters destroying things for reasons most of us can’t possibly care about, and a whole team of superheroes arrive to save the day, every time. Amused banter. More computer-generated destruction on a massive scale. Rinse and repeat. It’s getting repetitive, folks.
5. Tom Cruise is a movie star to end them all
We got to see “Top Gun: Maverick,” screened in toto by Paramount. But first we got to see Cruise in an insane greeting to his CinemaCon fans – wishing them a great screening while standing up in a red prop plane flying high above a lake in South Africa for his next “Mission: Impossible” installment. Meanwhile, “Top Gun” delivers, big time. It’s a crazy crowd-pleaser, old stye filmmaking in the best possible sense. Pounding music that sounds like “Highway to the Danger Zone” even when it isn’t, and perfectly sculpted guys (and one woman) flying perfectly sculpted fighter jets.
But even among all these young guns, Tom Cruise puts them to shame. At 59, he looks like a man half his age. His stunts and action scenes – legs pumping as he races toward Miles Teller, flying at Mach 10 straight into space – are literally hard to believe. I ran into Paramount chief Brian Robbins, waiting in the lobby as the movie played, and we both agreed that Cruise seems superhuman. Especially when you consider his co-stars from the 1986 original, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis. This is a movie star, but honestly we’re thinking he might have made some Faustian deal.
6. Netflix? What Netflix?
Before the pandemic, the streaming giant was the obsession of most exhibitors. They loved to hate on Netflix, which was killing their cherished exclusivity windows by releasing full series and movies all at once on the digital platform that you watch from your couch. (You know this already.) This year, Netflix did not make the conversation rounds in Vegas, nor was it the subject of derision or dissing from the stage, as had been the case in the past. Either we’re used to Netflix, or the now-downsizing streaming giant has lost its status as the industry bogeyman.
PS Shout-out to Universal for the best sizzle reel of the week. A gorgeously edited mix of the studio’s movies, set to a brilliant mash-up of original music, scores and pop classics. Hat-tip to DJ Earworm for the musical edits – thrilling.