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Film Stop asking about Netflix, and four other hard Hollywood lessons learned at CinemaCon 2019

John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), discusses some of the top-grossing films of 2018 during CinemaCon 2019 at Caesars Palace on April 2, 2019, in Las Vegas.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Attending CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners held in Las Vegas, is a profoundly strange experience. There is no other event on Earth the features top-tier movie stars, the latest advances in hot-dog innovation and, I dunno, the pump-it-up presence of musician-cum-walking-meme Pitbull. And yet the weirdest thing about CinemaCon is that it doesn’t seem weird at all. At least not when you’re in the thick of the four-day marketing frenzy.

Everyone at CinemaCon – exhibitors, Hollywood executives, contractually obligated-to-appear filmmakers, journalists who get increasingly sweaty and plump as the days and free luncheons add up – is either too busy boosting the industry to crazy-ridiculous heights or experiencing crushing anxiety attacks that the whole business is going to come crashing down. There is simply no time or energy to appreciate, or even notice, the surreality of the event, which includes studio presentations, screenings, celebrity glad-handing and enough networking to make you swear off cocktail shrimp forever.

From left: actors Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, from the upcoming film Queen & Slim, appear with the film's director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter/producer Lena Waithe on April 3, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

This discombobulating, frequently gross truth was especially evident at this year’s confab, which arrived as the film industry is reckoning with all manner of landscape-altering changes, from the continued rise of streaming services to the danger of franchise fatigue to the consolidation of studios. As this year’s CinemaCon wraps up, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz offers the top lessons gleaned from this year’s NATO (yep, that’s the acronym) extravaganza.

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There is no chill when it comes to Netflix

Despite Netflix’s increasing disruption of the film landscape – including the news on CinemaCon’s second day that the U.S. Justice Department has warned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that its potential move to limit the streaming giant’s Oscars eligibility could violate competition law – few inside the Caesars Palace convention centre were eager to mention the company by name.

“Cinema: It’s a word we hear a lot lately. Some in our business have tried to co-opt it for their own gain,” said Tom Quinn, co-founder of U.S. distributor Neon. “Those who have are not here this week.” Indeed, despite Netflix having an arguably larger global reach than any Hollywood studio, it did not attend this year’s CinemaCon, nor has it ever, thanks to its stalemate with exhibitors over how long it should take a movie to make it from theatres to home consumers. (Netflix makes its films available to subscribers a week or two after they play theatres, or on the very same day – a move that exhibitors believe cannibalizes their business.)

Dwayne Johnson, left, and Jason Statham talk about their upcoming film Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw during the Universal Pictures presentation on April 3, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

But the company was still an unavoidable subject throughout the week, much to the chagrin of those who organized CinemaCon. “The first 17 questions are about Netflix,” said John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO, during a tense interview session with media. “This is a really big industry with all kinds of amazing content creators who get distributed in lots of different ways and consumed in lots of different ways. … It’s surprising to me that most of the pre-stories about CinemaCon and all of your questions from the first 17 minutes are about Netflix.”

Perhaps actor Helen Mirren read the room best, though, when she appeared to debut footage from her new thriller, The Good Liar. “I love Netflix,” she told the crowd inside Caesars, but then quickly added that the company could perform the most crudest of acts upon itself.

Todd Phillips, director of the upcoming film Joker, discusses the film during the Warner Bros. presentation on April 2, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Everything is great, quit asking

As ever, CinemaCon’s priority was to reassure theatre-owners that theirs is a rock-solid business model that will never go flaccid. Unlike last year, NATO didn’t even need to smother cloudy numbers underneath sunny talking points. As the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reported last month, worldwide box office ticket sales rose by 1 per cent to US$41.1-billion last year, while North American box-office receipts hit a record high of US$11.9-billion, up 7 per cent from 2017.

Yet that boost is mostly due to higher ticket prices, with attendance remaining roughly static. And then there is the flood of new streaming services to prepare for: Disney+, in addition to offerings from AT&T, Comcast and Apple. In NATO’s view, though, this is all good news. “The more streamers there are, the more content is coming to theatres,” Fithian said. “Because if you develop business models with multiple outlets for your products, it means more people can finance more products.”

However you choose to unpack that logic, the over all message was one of unrelenting enthusiasm. And if you thought different, well, maybe you were the problem. “I’ll point out the irony that in your profession, when the numbers are down the first 15 questions are, ‘Why are the numbers down?’” Fithian told a group of reporters at the end of an interview session. “Now that we have a record-breaking year, there’s not a single question about the numbers. It’s something for you to ponder, thinking about the questions.”

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Cathleen Taff, president of distribution, franchise management, business and audience insight for Walt Disney Studios, talks about the upcoming Marvel film Avengers: Endgame during the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presentation on April 3, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Franchises aren’t going anywhere

Upstart studio STX opened this year’s CinemaCon with a look at a slate that studio chairman Adam Fogelson described as “disrupting the traditional industry standard” by focusing on “star-driven, mid-budget films … that fill a noticeable gap in the marketplace.” Yet while STX’s sorta-original films – including the comedy My Spy, a facsimile of Kindergarten Cop, The Pacifier and half-a-dozen other things that were in no need of copying – garnered polite receptions, it was the big, beefy franchise boys that drove the CinemaCon audience to its feet.

Warner Bros.' brand-friendly efforts, including Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the Wonder Woman sequel and the standalone Joker film, made sizable impacts inside Caesars, while Universal (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw) and Disney (Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, The Lion King) focused on familiar faces to similar approval. As much as executives spent CinemaCon paying lip service to the notion of original storytellers such as Jordan Peele (name-checked by just about everyone), it’s clear that the biggest bets are still being placed on the exploitation of intellectual property.

If there is any doubt, simply keep in mind that 2019 will feature not one, not two, but three films about creepy, familiar dolls: a Child’s Play reboot, Brahms: The Boy II, and Annabelle Comes Home (the latter being the height of franchise ambition: a sequel to a sequel to a prequel).

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, discusses the upcoming live-action film The Lion King on April 3, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Saudi Arabia is still a kingdom to come

At last year’s CinemaCon, there were two shining beacons of hope: Disney and Saudi Arabia. While the former is proving to be a bonanza for theatre-owners – the Mouse House raked in US$7.33-billion at the global box office in 2018 and is set to dominate 2019 thanks to its acquisition of 20th Century Fox – the latter is proving more problematic.

Last year, the Middle Eastern kingdom opened its first movie theatre in more than three decades after the lift of a religious-based ban. With 30 million citizens, who spend US$30-billion on travel and leisure outside the country each year, the market has the potential to be China 2.0: a once off-limits territory thirsty for development. Yet after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi this past October, the entertainment industry has backed away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime. Or that was the assumption. While some Hollywood outfits, such as media giant Endeavour, have cut ties to Saudi Arabia, certain NATO members remain committed.

“I’ve talked with three chains this week that are proceeding,” NATO’s Fithian told reporters, declining to identify the companies. “The assassination of a journalist is an awful human-rights violation. Governments have to address that. I don’t think it’s our business to make foreign policy as a trade association. … This is a country that’s had very few liberties for decades, and one of the things they want to do is open up their markets to legalize cinemas and see different voices.”

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Tina Gordon, left, director of the upcoming film Little, is joined by cast members, from second left: Issa Rae, Marsai Martin and Regina Hall during the Universal Pictures presentation on April 3, 2019.

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Diversity is Diversifying

The second-most popular word at CinemaCon after “communal” (as in, the “power of the communal moviegoing experience”) was “diversity.” Executive after executive waxed on about their commitment to getting diverse perspectives up on screen. Yet, while 95 per cent of the platitudes delivered at CinemaCon ring 100-per-cent false, the emphasis on new voices inched toward sincerity.

This was felt especially at the presentation for Universal Pictures, which touted new films from writer Lena Waithe (the racially charged drama Queen & Slim), Girls Trip producer Will Packer (the comedy Little) and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer (the horror film Ma, which marks the performer’s first lead role). Universal also took a victory lap to boast about the success of Jordan Peele’s diversity-forward horror phenomenon, Us. “Us proved that we are getting to experience the start of a career that is going to shape our industry for many years to come,” producer Jason Blum said. “Movies of all sizes matter … from filmmakers who are diverse, inventive, and adventurous.”

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