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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

CinemaCon 2012, Day 2: The State of the Industry + Warner Bros.

Film Flam Flummox


The official CinemaCon opening ceremony drove home just how deeply the motion exhibition industry has changed in the years since I last covered the annual NATO convention under its former ShoWest name. Of course, some long-standing traditions remained. A few exhibition industry awards were handed out, namely the NATO Marquee Award to Ted Pedas, President of Circle Theatres Management; and special industry recognition to Jack Panzeca of ICTA and John Evans, Jr. of NAC. There was a lavish reel presented by DLP Cinema that saluted the top grossing films of the previous calendar year, namely those that grossed over $100 million; making the 2011 honor roll are (in order of which they were shown on the reel) Fast Five, The Hangover Part II, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses, Bad Teacher, The Help, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Rango, Just Go with It, Hop, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Super 8, Paranormal Activity 3, Cowboys & Aliens, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, Rio, The Smurfs, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. NATO President and CEO John Fithian again exhibited his too-often-underrated talent at making a lot of dry, often statistic-heavy, talking points not only clear but rather engrossing in his annual State of the Industry address. The Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America also, as usual, gave an address.

That the MPAA head is now Senator Chris Dodd and is only now completing his first year in the job was one and perhaps the most superficial of changes since my ShoWest attendance years, when the late Jack Valenti was still on the job. Sen. Dodd paid quick homage to his predecessor near the top of his address before largely launching into a style completely own, missing the pompous condescension, most especially in regards to the MPAA's ratings system, that always came through in Valenti's speeches. The ratings system actually went completely unmentioned by Dodd, who adopted an efficient and more of a fun approach, finding ways to incorporate titles of films and names of special guests (such as Martin Scorsese) who are slated to be featured over the course of the week that support his main bullet points: technological advances in both the creative and exhibition sides of the cinema industry; on a related note, evolving business models in exhibition, to combat and complement competition from other distribution systems and screen platforms; jumping off from that, the threat of piracy; and ways to continue the steadily growing worldwide box office tally and audience. On that last point, I was especially glad to hear Sen. Dodd address how one audience segment, Latino Americans, remains largely underserviced despite its ever-increasing size and eagerness for product.

Fithian's address went into further details on many of Sen. Dodd's points, offering stats on the continuing upswing in box office revenue and how moviegoing is not threatened by the home entertainment despite the ever-decreasing theatrical window. This led into one of the huge issues that arose last year: early "premium" video-on-demand service plans that studios suddenly announced--and then just as suddenly cancelled, thanks to swift and hard exhbitor outrage--not long after last year's convention. Cooler heads prevailing on both sides, Fithian announced that NATO and the studios are now in constant dialogue into finding ways of adopting these alternative distribution models that would be mutually beneficial--as well as adopting a 12-month release schedule that keeps top-tier product flowing into cinemas not just in the peak summer and holiday seasons. But the most pressing points Fithian addressed were that involving technology, from new innovations to premiere at this year's convention such as laser light projection and high frame rate, to long-standing issues such as the transition from traditional 35mm film to all-digital projection, which will certainly be hastened by the end of 2013, when Fox, which has already ceased distributing celluloid film prints to Hong Kong as of January 1, plans to do the same for North America and the rest of the globe.

Jeff Robinov, President of Warner Bros., presided over the second major studio presentation of the week, which like Paramount's last night, was zeroed in on a few specific films.

Dark Shadows (May 11): Director Tim Burton appeared on stage to introduce an extended trailer for his take of the cult classic '60s-'70s supernatural horror-tinged daytime soap that confirmed my worst fears about his and star Johnny Depp's approach to the material: gone is the atmospheric gothic romance; in is a lot of silly jokiness about recently-risen vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) adjusting to the "modern" age--here, the 1970s, when then of course sets up a bunch of kitschy camp gags about that era. What makes this even more disappointing is all the talent in the cast; in addition to Depp, the ensemble also includes the likes of Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Chloë Grace Moretz. Those names, however, seemed to not matter to much of the audience nor the press, for though Depp's not-so-surprise onstage appearance after the trailer played was not only incredibly brief, he only spoke literally one word. Despite that, the mere fact that Depp was in the house was the #2 topic overheard being discussed in the media room after. (The number one subject I will get to farther down.)

The Dark Knight Rises (July 12): In a rather savvy move, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan offered not an extended look nor even a new trailer for the highly anticipating concluding chapter of his Batman trilogy but a striking montage of images, most never before seen, cut to score. Way to build even more anticipation for the film without sacrificing any secrecy.

Rock of Ages (June 15): As a fan of the original stage production, it's been amusing to me how all trailers and footage heretofore released of Adam Shankman's film adaptation oh-so-carefully skirted what is its biggest question mark: Tom Cruise's singing--no small issue since not only does he play a hard (in more ways than one) rock god in this '80s-set jukebox musical, but in the stage show his character is entrusted with no less than two of the era's most indelible, enduring classics: Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." The new trailer unveiled here finally answers the question, albeit with what still remains a tease: closing with a single line of his rendition of the former song, Cruise sounds at least capable enough to not shame himself nor Jon Bon Jovi. As for the rest of the trailer, Shankman looks to have nailed, if in slightly exaggerated fashion, the time period, and however Cruise may sound in the totality of his performance, the more seasoned singers in the cast, such as Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and leads Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, look to pick up any slack. Shankman, the only in-person representative for the film, offered the biggest laugh of the presentation by beginning his segments with a mock angry "You FUCKER!" to Nolan, comically bemoaning how he had to directly follow-up the Dark Knight Rises footage.

The Campaign (August): Director Jay Roach unveiled the first look at this comedy in which Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis play rival contenders in a heated battle for a Congressional seat. With these two stars in the leads, needless to say neither of these guys is exactly an ideal candidate, with the big question being who's the least incompetent: Ferrell's clueless and pompous incumbent or Galifianakis's naive simpleton of a family man. The silly verbal by play and the broad comedy--including a big closing gag in the trailer--plus the election year-relevant subject matter looks to make this a late summer hit.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14): The fact that this film, the first of two, marks Peter Jackson's return to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings universe that led to box office and Oscar gold, would alone be enough to rouse the most post-presentation discussion--especially with faves such as Andy Serkis (Smeagol/Gollum), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), and Orlando Bloom (Legolas) also on hand for this prequel tale of a younger Bilbo Baggins's (Martin Freeman taking over for Ian Holm, who will also appear) own grand adventure. But the content of what was shown--largely some outdoor location shots and rough scenes played in front of a green screen--was overshadowed and then some by the manner in which it was shown: in its native 48 frames-per-second digital 3D, introduced via video by Jackson. After the initial reflex of undeniable awe at the remarkable clarity of the image, bigger questions and doubts then quickly arose in my mind. While I don't deny such crystalline clarity has its application for feature film, I'm not so sure it's the best fit for a fantasy film, where suspension of disbelief is all the more crucial yet harder to achieve when the resolution is so high: the videotape-like image makes the lighting looks too bright and harsh, which then makes the sets look like sets and actors' makeup all too apparent. Granted, all that was shown was in a very early state, but being clearer doesn't equate to being better, for it drove home that the real aesthetic behind traditional 24fps film cinematography lies in the medium's innate imperfection, which then gives the artist that much more leeway to manipulate and create. Further more, filmmakers have had 100-plus years to perfect the art of 24fps cinematography; with 48fps and even higher frame rates, cinematographers have to learn how to light and shoot for those rates, for it clearly changes the aesthetic. I'm not so sure, at least at its current state, that these higher frame rates will be a new standard; I rather see it as just another option for filmmakers, much like how 3D has proven to be.

The Great Gatsby (December): With Jackson dropping such a controversial powder keg with his reel, all but completely forgotten was the presentation that directly preceded it, which for my money was the standout of Warner Bros.' featured titles. Leave it to the truly visionary, if not always successful, Baz Luhrmann to somehow make a romantic drama look and feel like a natural fit for 3D. The footage (introduced by Luhrmann by a pre-taped message) not only exhibited Luhrmann's now-famous visual flair (which came through even though some crucial FX work was clearly missing in a number of shots); his eclectic, eccentric, often anachronistic music choices; but--perhaps most crucially for a telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel--his masterful command of outsize, operatic emotion. Even in this brief taste, the passionate longing between Carey Mulligan's Daisy and Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby was as palpable as Luhrmann's fearless and feverish visual and musical imagination. This looks to be the studio's big awards season gun at the end of the year.

(very special thanks to Heather Lewandoski, Jessica Erskine, and the entire crew at Rogers & Cowan for all their helpful and generous assistance at the convention this week.)

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