The Way of the Water Won CinemaCon By Default

On the one hand, I had a generally enjoyable time at this year’s CinemaCon. It was nice to be back for the first time since 2017 I got to see both The black phone (excellent) and Top Gun: Maverick (uh…everyone seemed to like it) and I kept my promise to my wife to network and socialize. On the other hand, it again underlined how pointless the event has become in terms of its intended purpose. Back when most movies were original or new to you adaptations and studios had to convince theater owners to prioritize their big movie over a rival’s big movie, well, that’s was the purpose of presentations, celebrity appearances and trailers. But now that most motion pictures are IP-specific and there are so few that there’s far less maneuvering for the movie space, well, who needs convincing?

That said, tradition is sometimes enough, especially as a sign of “return to normal”. There’s always value in the real part of the show where theater owners and companies that make increasingly elaborate theater seating, speakers and concessions convince each other to go into business together. I’ve tried way too many different types of popcorn (many thanks to Cinelounge, who provided sealed sample bags for many presentations and yet ironically had the best flavor “naked with sea salt “) and sat in numerous reclining theater chairs (one of which, I swear, dropped more than 90 degrees). But enough of that, what did I think of the studio presentations and teased movies? Well, in terms of new footage for new movies, the obvious winner was James Cameron. Avatar 2partly because it was the busiest start to the week.

Walt Disney didn’t exactly make the case for a commitment to theaters. They showed the surprisingly melancholic first 30 minutes of Light year (the same portion that other journalists have seen in previous weeks) and the same (very nice) 20-minute opening of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness which was offered to junket press the next day. Even the Avatar 2 the teaser is the same one that A) is shown to the press today and B) will be attached to 3D prints of Doctor Strange 2 starting Thursday night before it officially goes live after about a week of theatrical exclusivity. We already have the Thor: Love and Thunder trailer two weeks ago, but we got nothing animation-wise strange worlds or Marvel movies like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania or Wonders.

Avatar: The Way of the Water was the trump card. The plus/minus two minute clip was basically a reintroduction of Pandora and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for the first Avatar). We see new clothes, new hairstyles, and new children in their families, as well as a glimpse of the film’s underwater locations. All of this was presented in 3D at 48 frames per second. If you’re not a fan of those high frame rate presentations (I like to swim in that pool once in a while for movies like Gemini man and Billy Lynnit is Long walk at half time), it will be fairly easy to find conventional DLP streaming when the time comes. Disney will reissue Avatar in theaters September 23rd, so my kids clamoring for a new watch (they saw and loved it in early 2018) might have to wait.

It was almost refreshing that the “Remember” teaser Avatar!?” subtext was just that, subtext. Sizzle reels for Consumables 4 and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom contained explicit “member bays” in terms of old footage from previous movies. Stretches 4 offered 90% “trilogy recap” and maybe 10% new roll calls (Megan Fox, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa and Andy Garcia) with almost no Sylvester Stallone in the new footage. Speaking of “member bays”, the flash teaser naturally built to a reveal of Michael Keaton in full Batman costume assuring Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) that if he wanted to go mad, in fact, they would go mad. Even though Keaton plays old man Wayne in the batman beyond sandbox he’s 69 and frankly barely over 45. If you’ve seen The protectedyou know he can still kick ass.

Warner Bros. cleverly prioritized its programming “not a DC superhero movie”, especially that of Baz Luhrmann Elvis (whose sizzle reel was far more impressive than the theatrical trailer) and Olivia Wilde’s Florence Pugh/Chris Pine/Harry Styles thriller put onDon’t worry honey. Yes, James Wan showed up for Aquaman 2, Dwayne Johnson showed up for DC Super Animals and black adam (another brief teaser offered for this one) and a few cast members showed up for Shazam: Fury of the Gods (followed by a fun sizzle reel and, thank goodness, a date change to December 21). And yes they announced a sequel to The Batman (with Matt Reeves, Robert Pattinson and company all returning to Gotham). But WB smartly reminded us that they also release “real movies.” Oh, and if you liked the blockbuster This duology, Salem Bundle (with vampires in the suburbs) has your number at the beginning of September.

That seemed to be the industry’s overarching message, both that “Theatrical isn’t dead and ha-ha Netflix!” and a promise that studios would offer theaters more than just IP tents year-round. Whether that’s true is a good question, especially if audiences don’t show up for non-event movies. But Sony pointed out High-speed train (showing Brad Pitt actor’s first 15 minutes), Viola Davis’ The female king (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) and Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation of Where the Crawdads sing. Yes, they announced sequels to Venom and Ghostbusters: Afterlifeand they showed the first 15 minutes of Spider-Man: Through the Spider-Verse (which even in the raw looked spectacular), but they also highlighted “regular movies” while Tom Rothman reiterated his commitment to the theatrical window (while hoping we forgot the slew of Sony films sold or rented to streamers in 2020 and 2021).

Neon offered two likely critical darlings, David Cronenberg Future Crimes and an in-depth David Bowie documentary titled Lunar Reverie which looks like a visual knockout. Paramount offered a brief overview of Dungeons and Dragons and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts before offering the trailer to Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I and showing all of Top Gun: Maverick. There was no mention of star trek 4. It is now increasingly likely that the announcement, before casting deals were put in place, was a bluff intended to impress shareholders just like 5.5 years ago just before Star Trek Beyond open indoors. If it’s done, so much the better, but we’ve been dancing this dance for years. Oh, and there was no word from WB about Fantastic Beasts 4 or wonder woman 3so do what you want with it.

Lionsgate had little to offer beyond a look at are you there God, thatit is me daisy (a film that would be 30 years too late if our culture weren’t so backward on women’s sexuality and humanity) and a brief tease at John Wick: Chapter 4. This clip looks more like the same with the caveat that “the same” is really, really good. Universal had the best overall presentation this year. The gimmick of pairing celebrities like Jordan Peele, Jamie Lee Curtis (who knows how to work a play), and Steve Carell with theater employees, managers, and owners has been inspired and proven to be genuine. Jim Orr was arguably the only executive promising to deliver a varied slate that seemed to say so, both because he didn’t oversell the idea and because the many films shown seemed to support it.

The gaze extended to Nope seemed to confirm some theories while still leaving some mystery, and it’s a relief that Michael Wincott isn’t just an extended cameo player. by Blumhouse M3gan (basically Child’s play with a heavily dolled up doll written by smarts Akela Cooper from a story by Wan himself) looks like a kick, while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish looked fun and violent night (with David Harbor in a die hard counterfeit featuring Santa as a Nobody) looks like my wife’s favorite movie of 2022. Jo Koy was funny enough as the unofficial host for me to watch his stand-up specials (and his upcoming Easter Sunday). The black phone might be Scott Derrickson’s best movie, and George Clooney/Julia Roberts’ romantic comedy Tickets to Paradise looks like a winner. Jurassic World 3 and Minions 2 both seemed solid.

It’s probably a measured victory that there are even enough theatrical products to warrant even a CinemaCon this year, and the overall message seemed to be that they won’t make theaters “content” hungry. Whether that’s true, especially given the inexcusably scarce summer movie slate (Come on Disney, put Rescue Rangers in theaters May 20!) remains to be seen in the years to come. Like I said before The Batman open, the biggest threat to cinema is no longer Covid but rather studios holding back regular and varied theatrical releases due to nervousness, production delays caused by Covid, emphasis on streaming or a mix of all the above. Theaters need movies to survive, period. If the studios don’t give them that despite years of evidence showing that a decent theatrical release helps eventual streaming debuts, well, that’s on them.

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