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David Poland

By David Poland

CinemaCon: Days of Future Past

The Rock said it best. He said it by mistake, but still said it best. He called CinemaCom, “ComicCon.”

You see, like ComicCon, there are now two CinemaCons going on at the same time. There is the event for the geeks (in this case, theater owners) and the event for the media. The media skips the geek stuff… for instance, the convention trade floor. This year, the convention floor was pretty illuminating.

The big push on the floor this year was different. Less a fresh coat of paint on the familiar and more pushing to the next generation of equipment. Theater seats are not all about cupholders anymore. The seats that were on the floor were cutting-edge seats with electric reclining mechanisms, electric footrests, and most popularly, the “4-D” experience. There were at least 5 different competing seat companies selling moving seats to add another dimension to the theatrical experience. Will it catch on? I personally hope not. But it is being pushed hard.

The most aggressive sales pitch was for new projectors and lamps for them. The new push is for laser, which increases the light throw to the screen, which improves the 3D experience.

And back in the Caesar’s Palace Colosseum Theater, the push was for – taa dah! – the 3D agenda, as 3D and the associated revenues are clearly dropping off here in the US. Will making 3D better help? Will cool chairs that add a 4th D help?

The Colosseum is also where the big Studio shows are. This is a big change from the past. In the first 30something years of the event, the drill was to have lunch and dinner for 1,500 or so of NATO’s closest friends in a massive ballroom. Then, there was a big dais and 3 or 4 large screens hung around the room. The host of each meal was a studio. And after saying “hello,” guests would eat lunch while watching some combination of executives and talent before an after-meal presentation of the studio reel.

There would be occasional off-site events scheduled, either in other theaters on the strip or off (indies presented at The Rio for a few years) or tents or in the case of DreamWorks one year, a massive videogame emporium.

I harbor great memories of both kinds of venues over the years. Disney’s presentation of The Lion King, followed by a live show not unlike what would become the Broadway version of the film, up and down the aisles of the theater, may be my most memorable experience in the history of the event. It was followed by a massive party in a tent, where there were many live animals around, including some with which you could get your picture taken.

Almost as memorable, the wrong way, was Fox’s Anastasia skating rink fiasco a few years later. But that wasn’t nearly as shocking to conventiongoers as New Line’s school lunch gambit in the same year, as they pushed out Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.

Anyway… scratch all that. This year, every studio presented at the 11-year-old, $95 million theater, The Colosseum, whose day job is as the venue for Celine Dion, Cher, Elton John, etc, but at CinemaCon becomes a big movie theater with Dolby Atmos sound. The maximum seating is 4,100, though most CinemaCon events seem to accommodate about half that number.

The advent of the theater setting changed the tone considerably. While some studios still choose to bring in a lot of filmmaking talent, that is no longer the big show. Getting the maximum number of actors and known directors to show up was the standard by which studio events used to be judged. No longer. Now it really is a clip show. This year, for instance, Universal did a morning clip show with talent and then rolled out a showing of Neighbors, which the studio also showed at SXSW a few weeks ago. The big talk of the morning reel was Angelina Jolie presenting some footage from her second film as a director, the Christmas release, Unbroken (which has had The Coen Bros, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson as screenwriters along the way). But they also rolled out footage from A Million Ways To Die In The West, Fast & Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey, Dumb and Dumber To, and Lucy without any talent showing up to push the ball uphill.

Paramount offered up The Rock (Hercules) and Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Ultr… uh, Extinction)… but no Michael Bay – responsible for 3 of their next 7 releases – and no new footage of note, as the Transformers 4 scene they showed has (mostly) been seen before. They did have a Christopher Nolan event scheduled for Wednesday, sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter… where he said almost nothing.

Warner Bros rolled out Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, Melissa McCarthy, Channing Tatum, and Mila Kunis… which was the biggest star show, but only a fraction of the talent roll-out they used to do every single year at ShoWest. No Tom Cruise, no Emily Blunt, no Aaron Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen. or Bryan Cranston. Extended footage of Jersey Boys, which is opening in June.

Disney did a pitch, though with almost nothing but new trailers or tiny clips of footage and a screening of May 16 release, Million Dollar Arm, along with an appearance by its lead, Jon Hamm.

Sony went talentless, though they showed slightly more footage than the others, but most centrally, 30 minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which had already been shown to geek press a couple weeks ago.

So to sum up… CinemaCon offered – with the distinct exception of the material from Unbroken – footage that will roll out and movies that will land in theaters within the next 60 days. Most of the new trailers are already online.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that… But the event, which used to be a place that really rolled out the next year of movies in a comprehensive way, with a certain flair, is not what it was. It is a well-conceived, well put-together event. But it does seem to be another event that has been eaten by the media’s now unquenchable need for more material. So the experience has been cleaned up… significantly.

Another event that has limited interest for much of the press that now attends this “new footage event” is the NATO/MPAA State of The Industry press availability. Even the press that was there really didn’t have many questions to throw at NATO topper John Fithian and MPAA topper Christopher Dodd. There were a couple questions each from the two classic trade magazines, a few from 3 international outlets, and me mouthing off. But when I used to come to this event annually, back in the Valenti era, mouthing off was the norm… we in the media with an interest in how the giant cash machine that keeps the entertainment flowing was working had a conversation with the key reps of the two leading organizations of the theaters and the studios. Any issue could come up, from very detailed discussion of revenues to the ratings system and so on.

This gathering felt like a bunch of people waiting to reprint the details of the annual MPAA survey… just as soon as the digital version was made available. The only story that came out of it was a situation that John Fithian dropped, probably out of boredom, in answering a follow-up by Sperling Reich to a question I had asked for a second time, still seeking a real answer. That item was the testing of a weekly national movie discount day. And suddenly, a few more questions… trying to get Fithian to give details he made very clear he was not yet in a position to release. Why didn’t I like that? Because it was like they were trying to badger or trick him into blurting out a detail for their amusement rather than seriously consider what was already in front of them.

It’s not that I love the old days so much. It’s that we, as the entertainment media, are now somehow in the business of reporting marketing as news and not seeing much value in the news and what it means. I’m not accusing every reporter of this. Not the case. But so much time and energy is spent on the goose chase that I just read much considered news anymore. Not from the new kids. Not from the veterans. We’ve all become so agendized that really thinking is a distraction. And there was something more thoughtful about the way it used to be… because there wasn’t the fear of having to control every strand every minute… because it wasn’t just all a publicity play… it was a community.

And so it goes…

4 Responses to “CinemaCon: Days of Future Past”

  1. Monco says:

    Appreciate the piece and whenever you write about devolving media standards.

    And for what it’s worth I think Nolan did talk about some interesting things from what I’ve read. Saying that he tried to make an adventure movie meant to be watched by a family is a departure for him. It fits with the teaser that was releases a while back. I was struck by the tone of wonder and excitement that the trailer hinted at. Once again he is showing very high ambitions.

  2. greg says:

    I hate people dumping on 3D…save your anti 3D propaganda….from box office mojo ‘while there was much noise about the decline of 3D in 2013—some of which came from this very publication—the overall trend wasn’t that bad. Domestic box office from 3D showings declined by one percent in 2013; in comparison, overall sales were up one percent.’

  3. Joe says:

    3D is crap. Greg, There has been no big rush to embrace it. GET USED TO THAT.

  4. David Poland says:

    Greg… not expressing a personal issue with 3D. Truth is, it is in steep decline in the US in every market but with young kids in animation and they are somewhat of a captive audience (and their parents with them).

    There are countries where 3D is still very hot and the more than 75% of paid viewings of movies offering 3D are in 3D. In the US, that number is now under 50% and dropping.

    You can also tell that the studios know this. In recent months, I keep walking in to screenings expecting to be handed 3D glasses, but the studios are screening less and less in 3D.

    I don’t disagree that it has a place and that some movies are meant for it. Gravity is the obvious recent example. But as the mainstream answer to most films… not so much.

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