Fantastic Five: NATO convention keeps raising the bar

Cinemas Features

Has it really been five years since the debut of CinemaCon, the annual convention organized by the National Association of Theatre Owners that succeeded the long-running ShoWest? “It’s very hard to believe,” marvels CinemaCon managing director Mitch Neuhauser about the passage of time and how far the show has come.

“From 2011 we have had a great experience,” he declares. “We did not know what we were going to achieve in 2011 when we were first coming out of the gate. We had really great support and we put ourselves on the map and people were really happy. But we had to set the bar higher the next year. We went into 2012 sort of throwing away everything from 2011, starting over, since we didn’t want to get lazy. And we had even better support and the show was more exciting and better than 2011. And we’ve been able to raise that bar every year since.”

But Neuhauser is loath to take the lion’s share of the credit. “There’s so much that the CinemaCon team can do behind the scenes to run what we think is a good show,” he states, “but we can’t get to that step without the support of the industry. From a studio standpoint, it’s simply spectacular. I can’t put into words how great it is working especially with the major studios when it comes to CinemaCon. They are just the best, they make our life easy, and we start from there.”

Neuhauser will admit to a certain degree of resourcefulness on the part of his programming staff. “We seem to be able to come up with new and fun and creative ideas, so that when people leave, they say, ‘That was pretty good.’”

One of CinemaCon’s hallmarks has been its exploration of new advances in cinema presentations. “We like to break ground when it comes to technology. In year one, we were very excited when James Cameron came in to show off high frame rates. In year two, Barco demonstrated laser technology. And this year, we are going to showcase High Dynamic Range [HDR]. The current digital projection systems, which are fantastic, really don’t have the ability to control contrast—the true blacks, the true whites. So Dolby has come up with High Dynamic Range, incredible laser projection.”

Neuhauser notes, “A lot of times when there’s new technology, the manufacturers are chasing the filmmakers: ‘Hey, see what we have!’ Well, the filmmakers are chasing HDR. We’ve been working on this for months. This is not out there yet—we’re still working with prototypical equipment, two laser projection systems. We’re getting way ahead of the game—the setup is very time-intensive, labor-intensive, a calculating, calibrating process that’s not done in a day. We only have three and a half days to set up in the Colosseum [the main theatre at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas], and normally it takes a couple of weeks to do this. So we have set up a mock theatre facility so that [the technicians] can do their calibrations ahead of time to cut down on what they need in the Colosseum. We’re really excited that Disney is going to screen Inside Out, the new Pixar film, in HDR. It will be the first showing ever of a feature film in HDR… Everyone who sees it is really blown away.”

Another coup for CinemaCon 2015 is the director they’ve secured for the annual Filmmaker Lunch Program on Wednesday, April 22. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to focus our entire luncheon on Clint Eastwood,” Neuhauser beams. “It’s an amazing phenomenon. I don’t know if anything like this will ever be replicated in the history of the movies, that this 84-year-old icon who directed not one but two movies released in 2014 had not only the biggest hit of his career but the top-grossing film of 2014. [That film, of course, is Best Picture nominee American Sniper.] It perfectly exemplifies the tagline of CinemaCon, which is ‘Celebrating the Moviegoing Experience.’ Having Clint Eastwood, we might as well close up shop, since I don’t know how we’re going to top that.” Eastwood will be interviewed at the lunch by Hollywood Reporter executive features editor Stephen Galloway.

Two more movie luminaries will appear at the Thursday lunch event. “This year we decided to focus our Thursday lunch on independent film,” Neuhauser notes. “NATO and its members are so eager to let the world know that we are a 52-week-a-year business. We are thirsting for great product, big product, mid-sized product, independent product. We have a diversified audience that is interested in all types of films, and we do not want to lose sight of the importance of independent film.

“What we love about this panel is that it represents all aspects of the industry,” he continues. Distribution will be represented by Tom Bernard, the veteran co-chairman of Sony Pictures Classics, a company which earned 18 Oscar nominations for its 2014 slate and “has set the bar when it comes to independent film,” in Neuhauser’s view. Speaking from the exhibition side will be Robert Lenihan, president of programming at AMC Theatres, while the filmmaking perspective will be provided by Julianne Moore and director Jay Roach.

“Julianne Moore, here’s an actress who’s just coming off a great Oscar win for a smaller independent film, but look at her career: She’s done behemoth franchises like The Hunger Games, yet she never loses sight of the smaller film, the personal niche film. So we want to hear her viewpoints about what it is about the independent film that brings her back, what’s so captivating about it, why is it important to her, what it’s like to go from a major tentpole to a smaller film. The purpose of this is to convey to the audience the importance of independent film, so that they’re more open to playing the product and getting it out there.”

Neuhauser continues, “I love the fact that Jay Roach is on this panel. He has achieved unbelievable success with the Austin Powers and Fockers films, he’s achieved Emmy Award-winning success on HBO with Recount and Game Change, and directed Julianne Moore to an Emmy win with Game Change. Here’s a guy who’s a comedic giant in our industry, and yet his next film, Trumbo with Bryan Cranston, is a much smaller, personal independent film. And it’s being released by a new kid on the block, Bleecker Street Media. So we want Jay to talk about why he is taking this route and what’s so exciting about it.” The “Independent Game” panel will be moderated by Brent Lang, senior film and media reporter at Variety.

Once again, all six major studios will be previewing their lineups for 2015 and beyond in special presentations in the Colosseum. Neuhauser promises that “every studio is going to raise the bar with what they do in the Colosseum. Everyone is talking about the year 2015 and what it’s going to do at the box office, and I think CinemaCon couldn’t come at a better time. We’re really excited to see what the studios have.”

Along with the premiere of Disney and Pixar’s much-anticipated Inside Out, CinemaCon will screen two other hot summer attractions. “Spy [from 20th Century Fox] is coming off incredible reviews at South by Southwest,” Neuhauser says. “Some people are saying it’s Melissa McCarthy’s best movie to date. We’re simply thrilled about that. And we’re following it with a post-screening ‘Spy undercover’ party. It’s going to be unbelievable. We learned that people like a late-night event, they like to party into the night. So, hey, let’s party on!”

As for the third film, “we’re opening up with a CinemaCon premiere event with the screening of Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2. Pitch Perfect took the world by storm, and we hear this one is bigger, better, and we couldn’t be more excited to open up with it.” That screening will be followed by a party at Caesars Palace’s brand-new Omnia nightclub. “For the past few years we’ve been using a club called Pur. It closed and underwent a $60 million remodel and reopened in March as Omnia, with a terrace overlooking the Strip.”

Another can’t-miss event is the annual “Pioneer of the Year” dinner benefiting the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation. This year the Wednesday night affair honors Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox. “It’s going to be a spectacular event,” Neuhauser declares. “They don’t get any better than Jim. And the next morning Fox does their presentation, so what a great segue!”

For many delegates, the place to be is the trade show, where equipment, seating, technology and concessions companies show off their latest products and innovations for cinemas. “The trade show continues to be a sellout,” Neuhauser reports. “This year for the first time we’ve sold out all of our suites. The demand for space has been at an all-time high.”

There will also be a range of seminars covering such topics as immersive cinema experiences, social-media marketing, building showmanship, the Hispanic audience, interactive cinema, FDA menu labeling, payment security, and “the unintended consequences of digital cinema.”

The four-day event, running April 20-23, climaxes with the annual “Big Screen Achievement Awards” ceremony hosted by Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood.” This year’s honorees include Julianne Moore, Alan Arkin, Paul Rudd, Rose Byrne, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, directors Paul Feig, Francis Lawrence and Elizabeth Banks, and the cast of The Fantastic Four. For CinemaCon, it’s looking like “The Fantastic Five.”