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CinemaCon Winners and Losers: Disney, Delusion and the Might of Millennials

CinemaCon 2019 is a wrap. The annual exhibition industry confab is one long charm offensive by studios using their upcoming blockbusters to energize theater owners, a group less interested in subscribing to Cahiers du Cinéma than it is by a film’s potential to put butts in seats.

Many exhibitors left the conference convinced that 2019 might be a record-breaking year thanks to tentpole films like “Avengers: Endgame,” “Star Wars: Episode IX” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” But every CinemaCon has its winners and losers, and this year was no exception.

Disney Domination

Disney’s 2019 slate looks unstoppable. Armed with Fox franchises such as “Avatar,” “X-Men” and “Deadpool” to complement its own lineup of Pixar, Disney and Lucasfilm offerings, the Magic Kingdom’s realm encompasses most of the major brands in entertainment. If Disney looked formidable before buying most of Fox’s content business, it now seems like a runaway freight train. The studio also made a seamless public display of kumbayas with its merged executive force. Fox film head Emma Watts joked she was being hazed by having to highlight her 2019 slate directly after the “Avengers” reel. Disney production head Sean Bailey asked if Watts could get him an early screening of “Ford v. Ferrari.” See you in the commissary!

The Rest of Hollywood

All of the other studios look like minnows next to the Monstro that is Disney. It’s going to get harder to find release dates for their movies or to get the same cut of the box office that Disney demands from theater owners. Hollywood is entering a new era, one that looks to be even more dominated by the family entertainment giant.

Power of Delusion

CinemaCon unfolded with tribute after tribute to the enduring power of the big-screen experience. It was a message delivered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer: The best way to watch movies is in a darkened theater with a box of popcorn and an oversize Coke (a conference sponsor) along with dozens of strangers. The problem is that millions of consumers don’t agree. They prefer to watch movies on smartphones, computers or televisions. But instead of acknowledging the tectonic changes roiling the industry and hosting some debate about how theaters can evolve with the times, most of the presentations insisted that nothing is threatening the business. Aside from brief mentions of new technology, the main stage at Caesars Palace was largely absent of recognition that there’s one less studio producing content now that Fox has been sold or that most major media companies are moving aggressively into the streaming space.

Netflix-Exhibitor Relations

Despite its efforts to befriend exhibitors, the streaming giant remains by and large despised by theater owners. Helen Mirren seemed to channel some of that hostility when during a studio presentation she offered, “I love Netflix, but fuck Netflix.” That line received some of the loudest applause of the week. The point of contention is Netflix’s refusal to show movies exclusively in theaters for several months. But there’s good news. Martin Scorsese’s mobster drama “The Irishman” is a Netflix project, and the filmmaking legend wants a robust theatrical release. That could spark some kind of grand bargain and may alleviate tensions.

Sequels & Spinoffs That Sizzle

The entertainment industry looks to be recovering from what was thought to be an incurable case of franchise fatigue. In recent years, tired entries in once-beloved series like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Transformers: The Last Knight ” failed to do as much business at multiplexes as their predecessors. But several venerable franchises are getting installments that seem to have recaptured the magic. “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Toy Story 4,” and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” played well with theater owners despite hailing from series that have been around for two or three decades.

Star Power

A-listers once flocked to Vegas to charm exhibitors. It wasn’t unusual to see Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio take the stage at Caesars to hawk their latest film. But this year some studios, such as Disney, largely eschewed appearances by the casts of their blockbusters. That left only a smattering of big names, Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Hart among them, to do the heavy lifting for rivals such as Universal and Warner Bros. Any way you cut it, CinemaCon was a much less starry affair.

Older moviegoers

From delirious CGI-live action hybrids based on Dora the Explorer and Sonic the Hedgehog from Paramount, to the flesh-and-bone reimagining of Disney animated classics like “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” younger audiences (especially millennials with kids of their own) will be heavily courted by studios this year. Offerings are slim for older audiences, save Diane Keaton’s assisted-living cheerleader comedy “Poms” and the odd drama — like Melissa McCarthy’s “The Kitchen.”

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.

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