Universal stages a marathon at CinemaCon 2017


Navigating CinemaCon, the convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, sometimes requires tough calls. Like, do I stay and watch the surprise screening of Universal’s The Fate of the Furious, or leave for that zero-gravity Mummy virtual-reality session I’ve been trying so hard to fit into my schedule? Do I leave the Focus Features 15th-anniversary luncheon before they screen Charlize Theron’s already legendary stairwell fight scene from Atomic Blonde in order to attend Barco’s press conference about the future of its panoramic Barco Escape presentations, including the first Escape marquee name, Wesley Snipes? Decisions, decisions…

CinemaCon managing director Mitch Neuhauser apologized for the jam-up that had the Universal Pictures presentation running a marathon four hours, forcing subsidiary Focus’ lunch to start 45 minutes late, likening it to a Scorsese film still in the editing stage.

Universal acted like it didn’t have a two-hour feature waiting in the wings as it presented extended Q&As with Steve Carell, the supporting players of The Mummy, and the stars of the raucous Ebony Festival comedy, Girls Trip. The Carell session was especially fun, as Carell recounted for Illumination Entertainment head Chris Meledandri how he came up with that indiscriminate Eastern European voice for his Despicable Me character Gru and joked about the outcast status of bald men like Gru and his boss Meledandri. (I forgive you, Steve.) Carell’s genial and funny improv made this love-fest between Melendandri and his number-one star a rare treat.

One of the reasons the Universal session ran long was the individual tribute reels they prepared to salute each of their special guests: a recap of the Despicable Me franchise, a paean to Charlize Theron as kick-ass action star, a compilation of funny women in recent cinema (which led emcee Natalie Morales to call the late Christopher Hitchens an “asshole” for dissing female comics in Vanity Fair) and most welcome, a salute to Universal’s legacy of classic horror before the Mummy co-stars took the stage.

Fate of the Furious headliner Vin Diesel led a contingent including co-stars Theron, Kurt Russell, Ludacris, a loquacious Tyrese Gibson, and director F. Gary Gray. Prompted by Morales, he teared up recalling his late co-star Paul Walker. He stated that it was Walker who promised an eighth movie in the franchise, declaring, “Part of Paul’s legacy lives through every frame we shoot.” He also revealed that film number eight is part of a new trilogy of stories that will take the franchise to chapters nine and ten.

I was only able to watch the first 25 minutes, but even that small sampling included a wild drag race in the streets of Havana and a major heist sequence in which things blow up real good. (That’s an “SCTV” reference, folks.)

Barco Escape, meanwhile, is blowing up the screen with its panoramic format that features a front screen and two side screens (like Cinerama after a growth spurt). At a special presentation and panel discussion, they screened impressive reformatted footage from last year’s Star Trek Beyond and trailers for two upcoming Escape movies: the horror thriller The Recall (which will include 30 to 40 minutes of panoramic visuals) and 6 Below, the first complete feature for the Escape format, directed by Scott Waugh (Need for Speed). The panel included Waugh, his editor Vashi Nedomansky, Recall director Mauro Borrelli and producer Kevin DeWalt, SkyVR CEO Josh Courtney, and Recall star Wesley Snipes, who touted the format’s potential for action movies “on steroids.” Waugh talked about the complexities of shooting in two formats (Escape and traditional 2.35 to one) at the same time, while Snipes noted that the panorama will demand more of actors working as an ensemble across that wide visual space. Escape still needs a steady pipeline of product, but Barco trumpeted 88% positive ratings from Star Trek moviegoers polled, with 80% saying they would pay to see another movie in the Escape format.

Another alternative offering creating buzz throughout the Vegas show is “The Mummy Zero Gravity VR Experience,” sponsored by IMAX in the Roman Ballroom. You couldn’t ask for a more ideal promotion for Universal’s upcoming Mummy reboot, as this virtual-reality presentation takes you inside the plane where Tom Cruise, co-star Annabelle Wallis and his crew shot a major stunt for the movie in zero gravity (in a reported 62 takes!). Though the visual display isn’t high-resolution, you still feel like you’re right there next to the actors and crew, and when the flight reaches zero gravity, your moving chair replicates the sensation. The CinemaCon demo is also a great showcase for Positron, creator of the first full-motion cinematic VR chair, which intends to create more movie VR tie-ins in the future.

The stars (and filmmakers) were again out for CinemaCon day three: Naomi Watts, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Charlize Theron (again), Gary Oldman, Beguiled director Sofia Coppola, Book of Henry helmer Colin Trevorrow and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch at the Focus lunch; Charlie Hunnam, Ed Helms, Jason Momoa, a non-speaking Justice League (Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher), and directors Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder at the Warner Bros. “Big Picture” event.

The stunning five minutes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (shot with IMAX 65mm cameras) was arguably the most impactful footage shown this week. And the highly articulate Nolan again championed the role of the big screen in presenting his new World War II epic: “This is a story that needs to carry you through and make you feel you are there. And the only way to do that is through theatrical exhibition.”

Also making a potent impression were the trailers for two upcoming summer horror films: Annabelle: Creation, the latest entry in the hit Conjuring franchise, and It, the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most iconic novels. And getting big laughs was a funny/gruesome scene from the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy The House, about a couple who run an illegal casino to fund their daughter’s college tuition.

The studios often save their big guns for the end of their presentations. Warner’s ran long and I had a prior commitment, so, alas, I had to leave before footage from Wonder Woman and Justice League was shown. The upside of a busy convention? I haven’t thought about Donald Trump for three days.