CinemaCon Report Card: Which Studios Wowed the Crowd, and Which Lacked Sizzle

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The curtain has closed on CinemaCon, and this year’s gathering of movie theater owners managed to come and go with nary a mention of the exhibition industry’s persona non grata, Netflix.

The streaming giant is usually a punching bag as Hollywood studios and film operators spend a week in Las Vegas to wax poetic about the communal power of going to see movies on the big screen. But following a year of experimenting with different release strategies and launching their own digital platforms, studios can’t really take aim at Netflix’s disdain of exclusive theatrical windows. Still, the awkwardness that loomed over last year’s convention didn’t appear to linger in 2022 as traditional studios reassured exhibitors that they would have plenty of new sequels and superhero pics to draw crowds. All those fights over theatrical exclusivity appeared to have been resolved … at least for now.

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After four days stuffed with hours-long pitches to tout blockbuster hopefuls like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Variety has assessed the major studios’ presentations that earned gold stars and the ones that were closer to getting demerits.

Sony

Takeaways: Sony took a victory lap for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the third-highest-grossing movie in domestic box office history (you may have heard about it) by proving to theater owners that comic-book characters are not the studio’s only superpower. Sure, Sony broke news by announcing Bad Bunny is joining its extended universe of Marvel characters and “Venom” is returning for a third movie. But the studio also wowed the audience with extended looks at director David Leitch’s star-studded “Bullet Train,” an intense and comedic action thriller in which everybody is out to kill Brad Pitt; as well as Viola Davis’ historical action epic “The Woman King,” touted as a real-life version of “Black Panther.” But aside from Davis, who was on hand to receive the inaugural CinemaCon Trailblazer of the Year Award, Sony’s presentation lacked the sizzle that comes from trotting out troves of A-listers.

Final grade: B-

“Avatar” director James Cameron sent a taped segment to CinemaCon. - Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
“Avatar” director James Cameron sent a taped segment to CinemaCon. - Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Disney

Takeaways: Let’s be real, Disney does not put a ton of effort into CinemaCon presentations. And we get it … it’s not like the studio has to twist theater owners’ arms to play “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” or “Avatar 2,” sequels to all-time box office behemoths. Disney opted against bringing out its leading men and women, and did a cursory job of splicing together sizzle reels. (In fairness, James Cameron probably would have shown up, had Disney not chained him to a production studio in New Zealand to finish a follow-up film that’s 10 years in the making.) Instead, exhibitors were treated to too-long sequences from “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a movie that opens in theaters next week, and “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear.” The star of the show, of course, was a first-ever look at “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which charmed the crowd but wasn’t long enough to truly whet the appetite of movie-lovers in the room (it’s the Na’vi you came to love, but this time they swim!). Next time, act like you give a — well, the word we’re looking for isn’t terribly Disney.

Final grade: C

Warner Bros.

Takeaways: Warner Bros. brought the kitchen sink to Las Vegas with an enviable level of polish and, more importantly, a sense of pacing. Extra points because the studio’s allotted time could have been awkward; it spent the last year putting its new movies simultaneously on HBO Max. Studio chief Toby Emmerich steered attention back to the big screen, telling the room, “together, we knocked it out of the park.”

Warner Bros. may have won the week by getting more than just the industry-filled audience at Caesars Palace talking about its upcoming slate. Twitter was set ablaze with morsels about “The Batman 2” getting the greenlight, Margot Robbie’s fun poster for “Barbie” and Timothee Chalamet’s musical theater chops in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” prequel “Wonka.” Inside the room, Baz Luhrmann did a particularly masterful job at selling theater owners on “Elvis,” a glittering look at a legendary figure. Along with “The Batman,” other DC fare seemed to satisfy the exhibitors. Notably, footage from Ezra Miller’s “The Flash” played well, despite the actor’s ongoing legal woes. Miller can thank Michael Keaton for that, whose big reveal rocking his own batsuit pumped an unusually subdued audience of theater owners. A major hiccup during the presentation (at no fault of Warner Bros.) was the delivery of child custody documents to Olivia Wilde as she exquisitely hyped up her upcoming film “Don’t Worry Darling.” Sadly, that was the biggest headline from the “Big Show.”

Final grade: A-

Olivia Wilde at CinemaCon. - Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Olivia Wilde at CinemaCon. - Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Universal

Takeaways: Universal knows its audience. Catering to the movie theater owners in the audience, the studio brought out employees from cinemas across North America to introduce everyone from Jordan Peele to Jamie Lee Curtis. A major highlight was Steve Carell, on hand for “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” who taught a multiplex general manager the secret to executing his implacable accent in the hit animated franchise. Needless to say, it played well in the room.

Universal may not have superheroes in its arsenal, but the studio made a convincing argument that it’s offering “something for everyone.” In reuniting old and new casts, “Jurassic World Dominion” looks like the safest blockbuster bet possible. “The Rise of Gru,” a new “Puss in Boots” sequel and, especially, Peele’s “Nope” should easily reap profits. Smaller and riskier original bets, including Billy Eichner’s hilariously raunchy “Bros,” Jo Koy’s semi-autobiographical comedy “Easter Sunday,” Idris Elba’s terrifying thriller “Beast,” and Julia Roberts and George Clooney’s meet-cute movie “Ticket to Paradise” were embraced, signaling those titles could also find their audiences.

Another funny moment: Universal chairman Donna Langley joked about what everyone was thinking — a drinking game for each time a studio head talks about “the magic of movies.” If anyone took that challenge seriously, people would have had to be carried out of the Colosseum.

Final grade: A

Paramount

Takeaways: Paramount devoted most of its presentation to screen “Top Gun: Maverick” for the first time (ahead of its Cannes Film Festival premiere and May 27 release in theaters). And the long-awaited sequel, in which Tom Cruise breaks out his aviators and feels the need for speed, successfully galvanized the crowd — and had grown men weeping. It was a powerful reminder of just how exhilarating it can feel to watch a full-blown blockbuster in a room with other people. We only wish there were more attention paid to “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s star-studded homage to Hollywood’s golden era; to say nothing of Cruise’s other big tentpole, “Mission: Impossible 7,” which may still be shooting the next time CinemaCon rolls around.

Final grade: B+

Lionsgate

Takeaways: Lionsgate has the unenviable position as the last presentation of the days-long conference, but the studio managed to keep everyone awake by hiring comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, the star of its upcoming “About My Father,” to emcee the show. His co-stars Robert De Niro and Kim Cattrall were welcomed presences. Maniscalco seamlessly weaved in his everyman stand-up act while hyping upcoming titles like “John Wick: Chapter 4” and another star-studded “Expendables” outing. Lionsgate has gotten very good at a certain kind of mush, and glimpses of Rachel McAdams in the coming-of-age story “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” had the auditorium clapping with delight. Keanu Reeves, who drew waves of applause for simply walking on stage, showed his face to talk up that next “John Wick,” in which he uses nunchucks to great effect. An attempt at low-budget horror, “The Devil’s Light,” looked thin. Cate Blanchett’s “Borderlands” was vibrant and campy, a positive indication that the star-studded video game adaptation may surprise us. Speaking of surprises, Lionsgate generated buzz about “The Hunger Games” prequel, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” which opens in theaters around Thanksgiving 2023. There wasn’t much to show since its currently in production, but that doesn’t mean the odds aren’t in its favor.

Final grade: B

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