CinemaCon: ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ‘La La Land’ Stand Out in Blockbuster Fray

Possible latter-year awards contenders from Fox Searchlight, Amazon and Lionsgate marked a change of pace.

The Birth of a Nation Sundance
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

LAS VEGAS — A day after 20th Century Fox announced it would be releasing Warren Beatty’s as-yet-untitled Howard Hughes film in partnership with New Regency later this year, the studio took over the Colosseum at Caesars Palace to show off its upcoming slate. But amid the blockbuster noise of hotly anticipated titles like “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” it was a prestige drama from subsidiary Fox Searchlight that truly stood out from the fray.

Searchlight acquired Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” out of Sundance for a hefty price tag of $18 million in January, so the specialty division needs it to be a hit. Part of that deal stipulated that an educational roadshow component be provided, whereby Parker will travel with the film and speak to its story and themes. All the more reason, then, for this to be Searchlight’s first year presenting at CinemaCon, to get exhibitors on board.

Studio chiefs Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula were on hand to tout the movie, which is set to be their big awards hopeful for the fall, and one that will likely pick up considerable steam a year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It’s scheduled for release on Oct. 7.

Searchlight landed Parker’s debut over a higher bid from “the leading streaming company,” Gilula said, referring to Netflix’s attempt to seize the title. It was an “electric premiere,” he recalled, noting the film’s oft-discussed pair of standing ovations. Gilula also pointed to a sweep of Sundance’s jury and audience awards as a “strong commercial indicator,” though Searchlight’s own “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” nabbed the same pair of prizes in 2015 and still proved to be a box office bust last summer.

Nevertheless, the team that brought us “12 Years a Slave” knows exactly what it’s doing here. The trailer for the film, set to Andra Day’s Grammy-nominated “Rise Up” and revealed to audiences for the first time at the convention, presents “Birth” as a stirring, powerful drama that, again, felt like a real change of pace from the usual here.

Parker — this year’s CinemaCon breakthrough director of the year award recipient — then took the stage with one of the film’s stars, Aja Naomi King. He said it felt like just yesterday that he was a college student, shocked to be learning about Nat Turner’s story for the first time. He shot the film, his directorial debut, in just 27 days.

King, meanwhile, said she was proud that, at such an important time in our country’s history, she could be a part of a film that “challenges us all to face our past in a way that can inspire us to eradicate injustice in our present and future.”

It’s already been said, but expect this to be a lightning rod when the season rolls around later this year.

When the reins were handed back off to “big” Fox, it was time for a look at director Tim Burton’s latest. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” based on Ransom Riggs’ 2011 bestseller, feels like a cross between the “Harry Potter” and “X-Men” franchises in some ways. It provides the unique filmmaker with an opportunity to again show off his visual acumen, packed with effects both digital and practical, as well as eye-popping production design.

Burton stumbled in the race with “Big Eyes” last year, and “Peregrine” doesn’t necessarily feel like an Oscar home run across the board. But below the line, it’s obviously a dazzler.

Fox closed with a hero to this particular crowd, “Avatar” director James Cameron. Cameron, along with producer Jon Landau, is an open detractor of home viewing options like the Screening Room. So he lathered up the audience with plenty of the same pro-theatrical rhetoric that has become a natural theme throughout this year’s convention. He then went on to update everyone on his progress with the sequels to his 2009 box office megahit.

“Since the release of the first movie, we’ve been expanding the world of ‘Avatar’ through partnerships that keep the franchise in the public consciousness,” he said. To wit, he noted initiatives with Disney Theme Parks (the multi-acre “Pandora: The World of Avatar” area currently being constructed in Florida), Cirque du Soleil (the touring “Toruk: The First Flight”) and Dark Horse comics.

But the big news, of course, was that his vision for the world of “Avatar” could not be contained by a mere trilogy, and that it’s looking more like four sequels are on the way now. “We’ve begun to bump up against the limitations of our art form,” he said. “There were too many ideas for two sequels.”

Whether the story can again capture the hearts of audiences (“Avatar” made over $1.7 billion worldwide) and Academy members (nine nominations and three wins) remains to be seen, however.

Later, at an Amazon Studios-hosted luncheon, the central message was all about assuring exhibitors that the streaming company is friendly to a theatrical window. Giant screens reading “We Love Theaters” even greeted attendees as they entered the ballroom.

As everyone finished up their caramel tart desserts, distribution and marketing head Bob Berney came out to show off the titles they have in store. High off the morning’s news that five of Amazon’s films would be heading to the Cannes Film Festival next month, Berney talked up titles like Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” with Jesse Eisenberg and Jim Jarmusch’s films “Paterson” and “Gimme Danger.”

A scene from Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” was shown, on the heels of an official trailer release earlier in the day. It appears the project is Refn’s “Black Swan” in some ways, with bold and striking photography courtesy of talented d.p. Natasha Braier (“The Rover”). The trailer for Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” was also presented, a Jane Austen costume comedy that could be a Golden Globe play for actress Kate Beckinsale at year’s end.

But once Oscar season arrives, the company’s flagship will surely be Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” acquired out of Sundance for a cool $10 million. Curiously, though, Amazon showed the audience a scene that is the movie’s emotional crescendo, hugely dependent on the context of the rest of the story. It should nevertheless get people talking, as it’s a sequence that could prove to be actress Michelle Williams’ Beatrice Straight moment, if you will, landing her a supporting actress nomination for a single emotionally explosive scene.

Finally, before that sudden bomb scare, Lionsgate put a bow on studio presentations this year with looks at films like “John Wick: Chapter Two” (not an awards movie, natch) and “Deepwater Horizon” (possibly a player). But of significant note was Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” follow-up, “La La Land.”

“Damien made a love letter to L.A. and it truly shows his passion for the city,” star Emma Stone said, via pre-taped message, of the musical comedy-drama. “It comes alive with every dance, gesture and lyric.”

A teaser trailer was presented, showing off a colorful fantasy canvas with great sets putting off something of a “Down With Love” vibe. Ryan Gosling and J.K. Simmons (who won an Oscar for “Whiplash”) also star.