Each year, exhibitors from across the globe descend on Las Vegas for a taste of the future. CinemaCon — the preeminent annual meet-up for movie exhibitors from every walk — offers a glimpse into the next 12 months of film and beyond, a look at what's coming out, and why it should be viewed on the big screen.
CinemaCon 2016 was a shining example of a sweeping post-modern movement in cinema, not just from Disney and Warner Bros., but all studios. Indeed, today's tentpole title must strive for both quality and ubiquity. Building a true movie universe is objective No. 1, and we saw that on display across the board in Sin City.
The common notion is that building a cinematic universe demands rehashing the same blockbuster characters and subjects; surefire hits with safe stories and digestible motifs. But with Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy and — perhaps even more so — 20th Century Fox's Deadpool, we're witnessing a newfound courage from top studios to do more than just build a universe and establish repeatable IP.
As Manohla Dargis and The New York Times' A.O. Scott argued, we're seeing a refreshing reimagining of connective tissue that puts great storytelling and unique characters at the forefront for studio universe building. The old criticism that tentpole filmmaking is just a shameless, pulseless and passionless money grab is just that — old. Today, the leaders of these massive projects bring not just creativity to the drawing board, but also passion and sincere fandom. And what's perhaps most surprising about this year's CinemaCon presentation is that smart post-modern cinematic references are springing up within different, often-competing cinematic universes — not just in Marvel land, but across the entire studio system. We're seeing a willingness for studios to cross universes and connect characters and worlds in a refreshing, original way we never before thought possible on the big screen.
Disney Does It Best
Still, there's no denying Disney's supremacy in weaving together sprawling stories for the screen. The trendsetter in constructing — and now deconstructing — an intricately interlaced cinematic universe was at it again during its CinemaCon presentation that let the product do the talking. When we weren't treated to a full screening of the clever and extremely entertaining Captain America: Civil War and a 27-minute sneak of Finding Dory, we were fully immersed in a multitude of movie universes that ranged from outer space to animation.
It's not so much the connectivity of Disney's massive global properties — with Marvel and Lucasfilm as the stalwarts — as it is the undeniable craft with which these worlds are constructed. Glowing reviews and four-quadrant reach tell the tale, and with the Russo brothers leading the Marvel charge while Gareth Edwards helms the anticipated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it seems quality and connectivity will continue to define the Disney slate into 2017 and beyond.
What Disney presented at CinemaCon was fresh and bold by any other standard — but for the studio that turned tentpole into tender and blockbuster into brilliant, this was par-for-the-course excellence. Perhaps the best display was a Tom Holland (as Spider-Man) reference in Civil War that riffs on Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back — an immersive nod to the bigger picture over at Disney, not bound by comics, time or space.
Warner Bros. Working On Its Own Universe
With a parade of DC-aligned talent hitting the Colosseum stage, WB made it clear its superhero universe is priority No. 1 for 2016 and beyond. But as movie fans and pop culture junkies alike will tell you, there's more to building a universe than simply connecting the dots and integrating key characters. The challenge WB faces with its expansive DC slate is bringing quality to the connectivity — to succeed where it failed with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, at least according to critics. By introducing a standalone Ben Affleck-directed Batman movie and impressively showcasing what looks like a promising Suicide Squad supervillain story, WB could be headed in the right direction with its cinematic universe.
And with the extremely talented Phil Lord and Christopher Miller helming Warner Animation Group and folding The Lego Batman Movie into DC's spectrum, there's reason to be excited for team WB. Here was a fresh take on a connected world and an innovative approach to including even animation in a bigger cinematic landscape. We've watched Lego Batman crack jokes at the Caped Crusader's expense, and much like Deadpool and its clever meta-humor approach to superhero filmmaking, Warner Animation has a keen sense for fresh immersion and universe building. Speaking of which...
Of course Disney has its Pixar universe, where we've theorized that every single shining entry into the slate connects and relates. And with a clear directive from top dogs Lord and Miller at WB, the Warner Animation Group seems to have found both chemistry and quality with its roster of offerings.
But we can't talk about the animation universe without discussing Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment. The Minion-powered outfit was on full display at Universal's CinemaCon showcase, with an extensive tease of Despicable Me 3 and a star-studded schedule of original titles. And while Illumination has indeed slated a number of originals for the coming two years, Meledandri talked about a synchronicity between all things Illumination — that is, a commitment to mirthful, silly storytelling designed to make people happy. These stories don't yet reference one another and intertwine, but we can clearly see what this world is made of.
Sony And The Cross-Studio Universe
Sony's presentation at CinemaCon was highlighted by a couple of surprise celebrity appearances, including a memorable visit from mega-tandem Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt to introduce sci-fi thriller Passengers.
But where the studio earned top marks was with the special appearance of Tom Holland, set to make his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Before Disney screened the entirety of Civil War, we caught Holland's intro scene from the film at the Sony showcase, with the young actor literally arriving straight from the film's LA Disney/Marvel premiere hours earlier to close out Tom Rothman's presentation. These well-drawn and far-reaching universes are transcending even studio lines, with Holland set to star in multiple Spider-Man titles at Sony, including Spider-Man: Homecoming, announced on the stage in Vegas. With the onus on studios to build ubiquitous and synchronized worlds that yield repeat box office breakouts, Sony has tapped into the most universal of the universes with Spider-Man. Now the studio will be tasked with matching the quality and popularity of the Marvel character slate by reintroducing one of the most iconic characters in comic book lore.
Why We're Excited
So what does this all mean? For starters, it's a win for both casual and hardcore moviegoers. Instead of dreading that next blockbuster sequel and expecting a regurgitated story with tired characters, we can hope for originality and creativity, even within the cinematic universes sporting the most mileage on the odometer. In this risk-averse universe approach we have seen great creative chance taking that generates superb, fresh and clever entertainment. The studio creatives in charge of these universes are treating their built-in audiences with far more respect than we had given them credit for. From the self-referential to the cross-dimensional, big-budget tinkerers are showing courage in a marketplace that requires them to be bold. And with the audience rewarding this creative risk-taking at the box office in 2015, the stage is set for superb mainstream entertainment for years to come. And isn't that, after all, what the fans deserve?