WHAT HAPPENED IN VEGAS

It’s been almost a week since I said farewell to CinemaCon, having departed Wednesday afternoon, post-the Universal presentation.

I’ve had some time now to digest all I saw, heard and of course, ate and before we turn the page, having heard the theatrical industry’s vigorous defense of the theatrical experience, I had  some final reflections:

• In recent years, CinemaCon has been the scene of some dramatic squabbles about the window, formats and where this industry is headed – all the issues roiling the film world. This year: not a bit of that: No fighting, no disagreement, no reference to any of the questions or issues looming over the industry.

Apart from the Fox presentation, where it would’ve been slightly odd not to make some reference, not even a nod of the head to the fact that one-sixth of our studios have disappeared since the last gathering and that another two-sixths, at least, hang in the balance (see below). No discussion of what that consolidation will mean for the industry – what exhibition might look like if say, half the major producers disappeared.

And a total absence of people scratching their heads wondering: Hey, have you noticed our movie studios are disappearing?  What could that be about?

• In place of any acknowledgment of even the slightest turbulence that we might want to take into account, just for planning purposes, I found the constant Pollyanna drumbeat of “We made 40 Billion in 2017!” fairly terrifying.

• Which is not to stay that the reports of the death of theatrical aren’t wildly exaggerated. Or that the window shouldn’t be defended to the death.  Both might be true. But, I’d have a little more confidence in the folks steering this ship if they gave at least a nod of the head to the fact that these are unusual times. Just a passing mention of “We know there are some icebergs adrift in this sector, but don’t worry, we’ve posted lookouts astern.”

• Likewise, the constant refrain of “Our last shared communal experience” isn’t really a selling point.  It’s a very noble thing, and I agree on a cultural level it is a big part of what makes film different, special, and ennobling to the fabric of contemporary civilization.  But telling the kids, “Come on get a taste of our last shared communal experiences!” is as good as promising them a tub of vitamin-rich broccoli with every ticket.  Few, outside of Ankler readership, when pondering weekend plans ask themselves, “Where can I get myself one of society’s last shared communal experiences?” If theater owners and studios are going to be leading with this pitch, they better have a good answer to the question, “So what?”

• The best speech I heard all week, remarkably, was by Byron Allen of all tycoons.. Riding his mid-range successes, Allen married his very outside the bi-coastal liberal arts/business/law school bubble, rags to riches story with a determination fill in the gaps the studios have abandoned – both in types and scale of movies.  He said, “They aren’t chasing that 30, 60 million box office, and we see an opportunity. To them those are crumbs, but you have to take those crumbs and make a gourmet meal.”  He added, making the case completely missed by everyone in glossing over what the consolidation and Big IP moves meant for the business, “Those are crumbs but they are important to everyone in this room because you have to have consistency in content to have a business.”

I came to Allen’s breakfast session with pretty low expectations and a fair amount of indignation at being out of bed so early. I left very impressed by his story, his performance and his focus on the vast swaths – both cultural and business-wise – that the studios in their wisdom are walking away from.

• After three days of seeing I don’t know how many movies presented, it’s amazing how much they all blend together.  The number of films that are giant effects/IP machines, so much work, toil, money goes into them but seeing them presented back to back, the sameness becomes deadening.  The movies looked well made, solid casts, etc etc etc, but it became a march of the machines after a while. There was a lot that “looked fun” but very few moments that stood out as something truly different and exciting.  And sooner or later, novelty matters, even in entertainment.

The number of reboots, sequels, spin-offs, reboots and the dearth of new characters being introduced at the top level makes one wonder how deep we’ve eaten into the supply of seed corn in this latest era. Obviously, in the face of last weekend’s box office, audiences aren’t on the brink of walking out on IP-machines anytime soon but at some point, the sameness of this parade starts to dull the senses.

• Which is why the movies that stood out from the convention were not the big IP/CGI machines: Star Is Born, White Boy Rick, STX’s slate.

• And not to make unfair superficial judgements but….in these days of disruption at every corner of the industry, last week’s speakers representing the future of the industry were heavily white, heavily in their 50’s and 60’s, heavily of upper-middle class/upper class top-college educated background, heavily people who have been working at the upper echelons of the entertainment industry for a couple decades now.

Not all of them were all of those things, but most of them were most of them. There were plenty of talented people among them. Obviously, you’re not going to trade away a Chris Meledandri and Alan Horn seems to be having an okay run lately, whatever his age and background.

But at a time when the studio is trying to reach more, different kinds of people in more places than ever before, when the competition is innovative and risk-taking and brazen like never before, the usual suspectyness of this cadre, from a very particular and extremely insular social milieu is pretty glaring.

• Stacey Snider’s melancholy comment at the Fox wake summed up the corner studios have painted themselves into: “As a 30-year lifelong studio executive, I can see the pressure that the studios have to not only create size and heft in the marketplace but to also look at the cost of making these global films and the cost of acquiring an over-the-top customer.”  Every movie now is seen having to serve so many masters – domestic, global, OTT, the larger corporate needs: anything less than a billion-dollar franchise film supposedly no longer works.

But at the heart of this, you’re still talking about stories and characters that have to connect with people. When people get scared, they fall back on their comfort zone, and when companies get scared, find themselves in a world they no longer understand they do the same.  The line-ups, positioning, and banter of this gathering couldn’t have screamed “Playing it Safe” louder.

The disruption of these days in entertainment comes down to a lot more choices being available to consumers.  If it hasn’t affected box office this year, it’s not crazy to think that not far down the line, if people have endless high-quality, low-cost entertainment options available to them outside of the theaters, that might at some point take a little bite out of attendance.  Given that, playing it safe seems a difficult long-term strategy.

• All that said, the question:”Where is Netflix’s Black Panther?” is pretty convincing. Until Netflix produces its Black Panther.

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