The Way Of Water’ Won CinemaCon By Default

On one hand, I had a generally pleasant 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 else seemed to like it) and I kept my promise to my wife to network and socialize. On the other hand, it again highlighted how useless the event has become in terms of intended goals. Back when most films 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 was the point of the presentations, the celebrity appearances and the trailers. But now that most theatrical films are IP-specific, and there are so few of them that there’s a lot less jockeying for theatrical space, well, who needs convincing?

That said, sometimes tradition is enough, especially as a sign of a “return to normalcy.” There’s still obviously value in the actual tradeshow portion where theater owners and companies that make ever-more-elaborate theater seats, speakers and concessions convince each other to get into business together. I tried way too many different kinds of popcorn (a shout-out to Cinelounge, who provided sealed sample bags for many of the presentations and yet ironically whose best flavor was “naked with sea salt”) and sat in many a reclining theater chair (one of which I swear went down more than 90 degrees). But enough about that, what did I think of the studio presentations and the movies being teased? Well, in terms of new footage for new movies, the obvious winner was James Cameron’s Avatar 2, partially because it was the buzziest debut of the week.

Walt Disney didn’t exactly make the case for a commitment to theaters. They showed the first 30 surprisingly melancholy minutes of Lightyear (the same portion other journalists saw in the weeks prior) and the same (pretty damn enjoyable) opening 20 minutes of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness which was offered up to junket press the next day. Even the Avatar 2 teaser is the same one that’s A) being shown to some press sometime today and B) will be attached to 3-D prints of Doctor Strange 2 beginning Thursday night before it officially goes online after about a week of theatrical exclusivity. We already got the Thor: Love and Thunder trailer two weeks ago, but we got little to nothing in regards to the animated Strange Worlds or Marvel movies like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania or The Marvels.

Avatar: The Way of Water was the trump card. The over/under two-minute clip was essentially a reintroduction to Pandora and to 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 family, as well as a glimpse of the film’s underwater locales. This was all presented in 48-frames-per-second 3-D. If you’re not a fan of such high-frame-rate presentations (I enjoy swimming in that pool now and then for films like The Gemini Man and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), it’ll be easy enough to find a conventional DLP showing when the time comes. Disney will be reissuing Avatar into theaters on September 23, so my kids who are clamoring for a rewatch (they saw and liked it in early 2018) may have to hold off.

It was almost refreshing that the teaser’s “Remember Avatar!?” subtext was just that, subtext. The sizzle reels for Expendables 4 and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom contained explicit “member berries” in terms of old footage from previous movies. Expandables 4 offered 90% “trilogy recap” and maybe 10% new cast roll-call (Megan Fox, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa and Andy Garcia) with almost no Sylvester Stallone in the new footage. Speaking of “member berries,” The Flash teaser understandably built up to a reveal of Michael Keaton in full Batman garb assuring Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) that if he wanted to get nuts that, in fact, they would get nuts. Even though Keaton is playing old-man Wayne in the Batman Beyond sandbox, he’s 69 years old and frankly barely looks a day over 45. If you’ve seen The Protege, you know that he can still kick ass.

Warner Bros. smartly prioritized its “not a DC superhero movie” line-up, specifically Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (whose sizzle reel was far more impressive than the theatrical trailer) and Olivia Wilde’s Florence Pugh/Chris Pine/Harry Styles thriller Dont Worry Darling. Yes, James Wan showed up for Aquaman 2, Dwayne Johnson showed up for DC Super-Pets and Black Adam (another brief teaser offered for that one) and a few cast members showed up for Shazam: Fury of the Gods (followed by a fun sizzle reel and, thank god, 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 release “real movies” too. Oh, and if you liked the blockbuster It duology, Salem’s Lot (featuring vampires in suburbia) has your number in early September.

That seemed to be the overriding message from the industry, both that “Theatrical isn’t dead and ha-ha Netflix!” and a promise that studios would offer theaters more than just IP tentpoles year-round. Whether that’s true is a good question, especially if audiences don’t show up for non-event movies. But Sony emphasized Bullet Train (showing the first 15 minutes of the Brad Pitt actioner), Viola Davis’ The Woman King (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) and the Reese Witherspoon-produced adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing. Yes, they announced sequels to Venom and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and they showed up the first 15 minutes of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (which, even in rough form, looked spectacular), but they too highlighted “regular movies” while Tom Rothman reiterated his commitment to the theatrical window (while hoping we forgot the slew of Sony movies sold or leased to streamers in 2020 and 2021).

Neon offered up two likely critical darlings, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and a deep-dive David Bowie documentary entitled Moonage Daydream which looks like a visual knockout. Paramount offered a brief tease of Dungeons and Dragons and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts before offering up the trailer to Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning part I and showing off the entirety of Top Gun: Maverick. There was zero mention of Star Trek 4. It is now ever-more likely that the announcement, before deals had been put in place for the cast, was a bluff meant to impress shareholders just as it was 5.5 years ago just before Star Trek Beyond opened theatrically. If it gets made, great, but we’ve been dancing this dance for years. Oh, and there was no word from WB about Fantastic Beasts 4 or Wonder Woman 3, so make of that what you will.

Lionsgate had little to offer beyond a look at Are You There God, It’s Me Margeret (a movie that would be 30 years too late if our culture wasn’t still so ass-backward about sexuality and women’s humanity) and a brief tease at John Wick: Chapter 4. That clip looks like more of the same with the caveat that “the same” is very good indeed. 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 room) and Steve Carell with theater employees, managers and owners was inspired and came off as genuine. Jim Orr was arguably the only executive promising to deliver a varied slate who seemed to mean it, both because he didn’t oversell the notion and because the copious films presented seemed to back him up.

The extended look at Nope seemed to confirm some theories while still leaving some mystery, and it’s a relief that Michael Wincott won’t just be an extended cameo player. Blumhouse’s M3gan (essentially Child’s Play with a heavily dolled-up doll written by Malignant’s Akela Cooper from a story by Wan himself) looks like a kicky blast, while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish looked amusing and Violent Night (starring David Harbour in a Die Hard knock-off featuring Santa Claus by way of Nobody) looks like my wife’s favorite movie of 2022. Jo Koy was funny enough as an unofficial host that I’ll check out his stand-up specials (and his upcoming Easter Sunday). The Black Phone might be Scott Derrickson’s best movie, and the George Clooney/Julia Roberts rom-com Tickets to Paradise looks like a winner. Jurassic World 3 and Minions 2 both looked solid.

It’s probably a measured win that there’s even enough theatrical product on tap to even justify a CinemaCon this year, and the overall message seemed to be that they won’t make the theaters go hungry in terms of “content.” Whether that’s true, especially considering the inexcusably sparse summer movie slate (C’mon Disney, put Rescue Rangers in theaters on May 20!) remains to be seen in the coming years. As I’ve been saying since before The Batman opened, the biggest threat to theatrical is no longer Covid but rather studios withholding regular and varied theatrical releases due to skittishness, Covid-caused production delays, an emphasis on streaming or a mix of all of the above. Theaters need movies to survive, period. If the studios won’t give them that despite years of evidence showing that a decent theatrical release helps the eventual streaming debut, well, that’s on them.