Saturday, September 30

CinemaCon Hyped Theaters, but Streaming Isn’t Going Anywhere

Theater owners and studio chiefs this week congregated in Las Vegas once again to celebrate CinemaCon, where upcoming big-budget and awards-hopeful films scheduled to release through the end of this year and into 2023 aimed to build early buzz.

Aside from “Don’t Worry Darling” director and actor Olivia Wilde being served child custody documents in the middle of a speech, much of the studio presentations to attendees was similar to when everyone gathered for the last CinemaCon in August 2021 — too similar, in fact.

This was especially the case for Paramount Pictures. In addition to the debut and well-received screening of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the next “Mission: Impossible” installment was given an official title alongside a mid-stunt message of appreciation from leading man Tom Cruise.

Sound familiar? That’s because footage from both films led Paramount’s presentation at the last CinemaCon, where a prerecorded message from Cruise on the set of “Mission: Impossible” was also shown before the films were delayed to 2022 just one week later amid the delta surge of COVID.

“Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part I” is now set to bow in March 2023. Paramount Pictures president and CEO Brian Robbins acknowledged the many delays at CinemaCon, telling attendees the studio is “finally ready to bring this phenomenal movie to where it always belonged … and that is in your theaters.”

While the pandemic can still certainly stall productions as COVID subvariants like Omicron BA.2 continue to spread, the rampant success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which propelled the 2021 holiday box office to a higher point than what was seen in December 2019, ultimately rang in as firm indication that the right IP can make a tentpole release pandemic-proof, as long as theaters are the only place to see it.

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This is especially true when looking at how many theaters were operational for December 2021 compared with December 2020, when what was then becoming the worst COVID surge resulted in a drop of just under a thousand open theater sites as Warner Bros. released “Wonder Woman 1984” to theaters and HBO Max simultaneously on Dec. 25.

By contrast, the Dec. 17 release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in 2021 was exclusive to theaters, as the much larger omicron surge had begun, with only around a couple hundred out of 5,000 theater sites closing their doors.

It’s natural that the optimism over such a crisis-defying box office performance of a tentpole would leave theater owners elated with the possibility for more successful hits in 2022, especially with studios having agreed upon 45-day-or-lower theatrical windows of exclusivity for new films before they hit a variety of streaming Pay-1 window deals.

But National Association of Theater Owners head John Fithian’s declaration at this year’s CinemaCon that “simultaneous release is dead” isn’t entirely accurate.

It’s true that Warner Bros. is no longer giving its films day-and-date HBO Max releases, with March 4‘s “The Batman” steering the weekend box office to its second-highest point seen during the pandemic. But Universal Pictures is still experimenting with day-and-date releases in tandem with NBCUniversal-owned streaming service Peacock.

After having released Jennifer Lopez romcom “Marry Me” to theaters and Peacock in February, Universal and Blumhouse’s “Firestarter” adaptation of the Stephen King novel is doing the same in May, a fact heavily obscured by their excited reveal of Blumhouse’s “M3GAN” horror film for January 2023.

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Likewise, films are still being pulled from theatrical slates and redirected to streaming. Disney did this earlier in 2022 with “Turning Red,” a move that upset many at Pixar. And if theater owners were hoping for a mid-budget Jason Statham thriller to help carry them through the August lull, too bad — Sony decided to pull “The Man From Toronto” from its Aug. 12 release and sell it to Netflix, per the studio’s five-year Pay-1 deal that already sees its new films stream there after releasing in theaters.

Even Lionsgate, whose CinemaCon presentation teased the next “John Wick” and “Expendables” films, recently sold Jennifer Lopez romcom “Shotgun Wedding” to Amazon rather than keep it on track for its theatrical June release.

It’s easy to ignore all this in favor of a tentpole frenzy — after all, December 2022 will be graced with 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 box office all-timer, all but guaranteeing a repeat of filmgoers braving the next potential COVID surge as they did with “Spider-Man.”

But beyond the tentpoles, the rest of the theatrical film market is still figuring out its future amid the reality of streaming as an alternate distribution model, whether NATO likes it or not.

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