5 Burning CinemaCon Questions: From Netflix’s Rise to the Disney-Fox Merger

James Cameron CinemaCon Screening room
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

CinemaCon, the annual lovefest between studios and theater owners, unfolds this week in Las Vegas. In Sin City, exhibitors will be treated to a look at the upcoming slates from Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., and other major Hollywood players, while being reassured that nothing, not Netflix nor franchise fatigue, will endanger the theatrical experience.

Here are five burning questions that the theater owners and studios will be grappling with over the next four days.

1.) Will Release Windows Shrink?

Studios say yes, theater owners say no way. The issue of windowing, the amount of time that major releases remain exclusively in theaters, is a prickly one. But it will likely be raised in some form at CinemaCon, particularly with Comcast (corporate parent of Universal), WarnerMedia (corporate parent of Warner Bros.), and Disney all poised to launch streaming services in the coming months. As these players invest in premium content the lines between theatrical movies and streaming shows will continue to blur. In order to justify the tens of millions they spend distributing movies and advertising them, studios argue that they need to be able to release them on home entertainment platforms earlier. Theaters counter that doing so would cannibalize their revenues and would encourage consumers to just skip the multiplexes in favor of streaming a hot new release when it lands on the on-demand platform of their choice within a matter of weeks. This debate isn’t going away any time soon.

2.) Netflix: Friend or Foe?

Most theater owners would say the latter, but the situation is becoming more complicated. After being dismissive of cinemas as anachronisms, the streaming leviathan is making more of an effort to play nice. Initially, Netflix insisted that all of its movies debut on its streaming service at the same time they premiered in theaters. But that’s changing. “Roma,” for instance, was in theaters for three weeks before it started streaming, and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Netflix release “The Irishman” is expected to have some sort of exclusive theatrical run. Most major chains refuse to show these movies however, because they debut on Netflix within weeks of their opening. They want the streaming service to adhere to the roughly 90-day exclusive theatrical window that other studios honor. Can these two sides find some common ground?

3.) Will CinemaCon lack firepower?

With Sony sitting out CinemaCon and Amazon opting to just screen “Late Night,” this year’s gathering looks a little light on the presentations. Plus, Hollywood is down a studio. Twentieth Century Fox could reliably be counted on to put on one of the biggest shows of any CinemaCon, replete with dancing showgirls, full size orchestras, and, in one instance, Vanilla Ice. However, there will be no Fox presentation this year as Fox, at least in its standalone incarnation, is no more. It has been purchased by Disney as part of a $71.3 billion, industry-shaking, mega-merger.

Plus, the absence of Sony, which apparently thought it wasn’t worth it to spend $2 million-plus hawking the next “Spider-Man” to exhibitors, means that theater owners won’t get a look at the studio’s upcoming releases. That means no sneak peek at Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Men in Black: International, ” or “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

The loss of Fox points to another troubling problem. Theater owners will have one fewer studio providing product for their screens. That means that their customers will have fewer choices on any given weekend. And that’s not good for business.

4.) What Will be the Sleeper Hits?

Everyone knows that “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King” will be box office winners. You don’t have to sit through Disney’s CinemaCon presentation to make that kind of prediction. Where CinemaCon is most valuable is in giving theater owners a sense of what lower profile releases have the potential to break out in a big way. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Kingsmen,” and Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” are just a few of the films that got a big boost from strong showings at CinemaCon. This year upcoming releases such as “Gemini Man,” a trippy thriller that unites Lee and Will Smith, “Motherless Brooklyn,” a murder mystery directed by and starring Edward Norton, and “The Woman in the Window,” an adaptation of A.J. Finn’s best-selling novel, could all see their fortunes rise if they nail the landing at CinemaCon.

Of course, CinemaCon cuts both ways. It can also give reporters who attend and theater owners a pretty good sense of what films are likely to be turkeys. One look at “Geostorm” or “Mortal Engines” was all most people needed to predict they had a date with flophood.

5.) Are Subscription Services Here to Stay?

MoviePass was all the rage at last year’s CinemaCon. Twelve months ago, the company had disrupted the exhibition space with its low-cost subscription model and its ambitions to be the Netflix of moviegoing. However, the company has suffered a steep fall in recent months and is currently teetering on the brink of insolvency. MoviePass, it seems, could not make the math work. It was losing money nearly every time on of its subscribers bought a ticket.

But are subscription services here to stay? AMC and Cinemark have introduced their own MoviePass-like services. Moreover, before MoviePass began suffering financial problems, millions of people signed up for the service, which would indicate that audiences like the idea of a subscription service. Now comes the difficult task of finding a sustainable business model.