LAS VEGAS—Like millions of Americans every year, Tim and Donna Barnes made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas, hoping to land a jackpot shimmering just out of reach.
In their case, a hit movie that’s not a Disney-style franchise — the kind that can bring in scores of customers.
“Man cannot live by tent poles alone,” said Tim Barnes, who with wife Donna owns three movie theatres in New Hampshire, using the Hollywood term for big-budget branded movies. “We need to find something original or surprising that will work for our audiences.”
CinemaCon is the annual April convention where movie studios peddle their films to the people who control the country’s 40,000 movie screens. Known as exhibitors, they gather in a cavernous casino theatre normally given to Céline Dion and James Taylor residencies in order to watch footage, endure studio-executive hype, take in star patter and make booking decisions for the next year, the moviegoing future by way of the laminated-badge set.
Yet the four-day event last week took on a more urgent tone this year. With its Fox acquisition, Disney is now the kind of indomitable force the business has not seen in generations. On Wednesday, the studio cemented its heavyweight status by promoting Fox productions like the Dark Phoenix” X-Men film, alongside Disney projects Aladdin, Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Frozen 2 and Toy Story 4.
But to many exhibitors — and rival studios — this only heightens the importance of finding non-Disney hits. They are wary of one company gaining too much power, fearing what it can mean for their negotiating position. And Disney releases comparatively few movies. “The Avengers,” Barnes said, “can’t carry us through 12 months of business.”
The question is: Where to find them?
Paramount Pictures executives were among those who believe they’ve found the answer. On Thursday, the company made the case to exhibitors that sequels to Coming to America and Top Gun were part of the solution to Disney fatigue. So was a Jim Carrey-starring comedic adaptation of vintage Sega game Sonic the Hedgehog. And they posited that an original sci-fi thriller called Gemini Man, which unites Will Smith and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, could be the start of something big.
But the studio’s pièce de résistance was Terminator: Dark Fate, a sequel to the first two films in the time-hopping series. This film represents the return of original Sarah Connor Linda Hamilton; James Cameron was also heavily involved. Paramount is hoping the movie evokes the same good-vibes nostalgia as Disney has with its Aladdin and Lion King remakes.
“This is sure to bring you back to the feeling you first experienced when you were introduced to this Terminator world,” Kyle Davies, Paramount’s head of distribution, told exhibitors.
Star Arnold Schwarzenegger made sure to connect the film to multiple throwback blockbusters. “Even though he was in the middle of Avatar,” the actor said of Cameron, “he was thinking about Terminator.”
The studios are on an awkward middle ground. They know they can’t match Disney on the franchise front, so they seek original films. But they also know that to ignore sequels and remakes is, in this age of global megabrands, to write their obituaries. So they also look to mine what they have.
On Tuesday, Warner Bros. teased further installments in its Godzilla and DC Comics lines — but also more eccentric fare like an adaptation of Pulitzer-winning novel The Goldfinch and a Bruce Springsteen-themed coming-of-age comedy.
Lionsgate, a mid-major studio, on Thursday promoted the latest instalment in its John Wick action franchise and reminded exhibitors it was the studio of The Hunger Games. But it also sought out original terrain with releases like Long Shot, a romantic comedy with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron involving a scrappy journalist and an idealistic secretary of state.
“We of course want our franchises, but we can be quick and do more original things, too,” Joe Drake, the co-chair of Lionsgate’s motion picture group, said in an interview. The gargantuan size of Disney, he said, opens avenues for smaller companies not locked into dates and titles several years away. “You want to be big enough to be relevant but small enough to be nimble,” he said.
Many of those taking the stage at CinemaCon made sure to pay deference to movie theatres, which are enduring despite competition from Netflix and other streaming services. Theatrical revenue grew by nearly eight per cent last year, the most since 2009.
But it was, again, primarily thanks to Disney, which had all three of the top movies, all featuring superheroes (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Incredibles 2). Those films alone accounted for nearly $2 billion of the $11.6 billion of movie tickets sold in the United States.
Theater owners say the challenge is bigger than just one of product diversity — it’s a negotiating issue.
“We can’t put all our cards in Disney’s basket,” said Blake Andersen, the president of Megaplex Theatres, a Utah-based chain with more than a dozen locations. “We need competition.”
One booker, as the intermediaries who broker deals with studios on behalf of theatres are known, noted the conundrum that Disney’s dominance presents.
“It’s terrific that they have all these movies that will be hits. And it’s also terrible they have all these movies that will be hits,” said the booker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger their partner. “Because they have everyone over a barrel.”
Disney about a year ago began mandating three-week runs for some of its movies, a break from the industry custom of two weeks. It also now routinely takes a share that is much larger than the industry standard — sometimes as high as two-thirds of dollars. (Box-office dollars are shared on a scale that increases with revenue. A film may see, say, a 50-50 split between studio and exhibitor while it is under $100 million in grosses, 51 or 52 per cent between $100 million and $125 million, and so on.)
Disney has been pushing the ceiling to 65 per cent for some of its biggest blockbusters, and there is fear among some theatre owners that the ratio will soon get more lopsided. Star Wars: Episode IX later this year is expected to command as much as 68 per cent for Disney. Disney declined to comment for this story.
The studio has also periodically floated the possibility of taking a share of concession revenue, a proposal theatre owners have strongly resisted. But Disney could make a fresh push with its new muscle. Together, Disney and Fox accounted for 35 per cent of all U.S. box office dollars in 2018. Just five years ago, the leading studio by market share was Warner Bros. — with 16 per cent.
John Fithian, leader of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the owners’ lobbying group and CinemaCon host, said his organization was always wary of one player becoming too strong. But he said this also must be balanced against other benefits.
“Certainly the bigger you are the more leverage you have, which is why we want competition among suppliers,” Fithian told The Washington Post. “But that can sometimes be offset by a company that provides really terrific movies and is dedicated to the theatrical experience.”
Disney’s rise has some in the creative community feeling emboldened. “There’s an opportunity here,” Jonathan Levine, director of Long Shot, said in an interview. “The audience feels overwhelmed by all the big franchises and want to find something that’s surprising, that they can enter the theatre not knowing what it is. And that’s where movies like ours come in.”
Some studios, like Universal Pictures, were looking to walk the line in their own way — “original movies from brilliant filmmakers as well as franchises,” the studio’s chairman, Donna Langley, said of its mission.
The Comcast unit, seen as a main bulwark against Disney, has returned to a seemingly bottomless well of Fast and Furious movies. The company has made a ninth Fast picture, this one set partly in the Samoa of star Dwayne Johnson’s heritage. “It’s the epic-ness you expect from a Fast and Furious movie, and now you have this mana, this spirit,” Johnson said of the movie’s appeal. The studio additionally touted a cinematic take on the long-running Broadway sensation Cats, starring Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift.
But it may also be possible to produce easily relatable films that don’t come in the form of names that audiences have long known. Universal also pushed a group of lower-budget original films, including Yesterday, from Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and Love Actually writer Richard Curtis. The movie centres on a world in which a man wakes up to find that only he has heard of the Beatles and must decide whether to profit from the Fab Four’s songs.
Taking the stage, Boyle said he had asked a simple question when he read the script. “Why,” he said, “hasn’t it been a movie before?”
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