After nearly 15 long and bleak months for the movie theater industry, a consortium of the major and independent studios gathered inside an AMC theater in Century City on Wednesday to celebrate — and cheerlead — the return of theatrical exhibition. Part of the industry-wide campaign called “The Big Screen Is Back,” the event showcased over 30 feature films — from massive tentpoles like “Black Widow” and “F9” to indies like Janicza Bravo’s “Zola” and Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” — set to debut in movie theaters through the rest of the year, as introduced by a parade of filmmakers, actors, and executives. Some — including executives from every major studio, as well as filmmakers like Bravo, J.J. Abrams, and Jason Blum — appeared in person; others appeared via pre-recorded messages.
The event started with an in-person speech by one of the industry’s elder statesmen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, about the power and importance of the moviegoing experience.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wouldn’t be for the theaters, if it wouldn’t be for the big screen,” Schwarzenegger said to a masked and socially distanced audience of journalists, film industry professionals, and exhibition executives. The actor and former California governor then made an economic appeal for the sustained health of the movie theater business, citing the 153,000 people employed by the industry, including concessions and custodial staff, as well as all the businesses that surround theaters and depend on the people they draw to them.
“These are the people who sacrificed so much this last year,” Schwarzenegger said.
Next, Rolando Rodriguez, NATO chairman and Marcus Theaters CEO, echoed Schwarzenegger’s sentiment by making a larger cultural argument.
“The conversation in our culture around movies just hasn’t been the same the last 15 months without moviegoing,” he said.
Towards the end of the event, Ethan Titelman from the National Research Group presented some hard data to bolster the hope that the exhibition business can return to normal, drawing from interviews with over 1 million moviegoers across 13 countries during the pandemic. According to Titelman, 70% of domestic moviegoers now say they’re comfortable coming back to theaters, up from 45% in January, and he projected that number could be up to 80% by end of June. The goal, he said, was for the world to get to where China is today, with roughly 90% of moviegoers comfortable with going to theaters since last fall, up to 95% today.
The rest of the marathon presentation, which stretched for well over three hours, drove home the larger message again and again and again, delivered in both dry corporate language and impassioned personal stories: Only movie theaters can provide a collective moviegoing experience, and the film industry at large is ready to provide the kinds of movies that will bring audiences back to it.
Most of the screened footage, however, had been previously released online, which drained the event of the attention-grabbing buzz that the theatrical business desperately needs. But there was still an undeniable, if ineffable, power to seeing it up on a giant movie screen. Perhaps the best example of that was the first film to be previewed, “In the Heights.” Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Jeff Goldstein and director Jon M. Chu introduced the opening musical number from the film, which climaxes with a massive cast dancing in unison in the streets of Washington Heights. It was exactly the kind of sweeping, emotional spectacle that works best in a darkened theater with massive sound. There was just very little that equaled it for the rest of the day.
Only a few other films debuted clips like that during the event, including Universal’s “F9” and A24’s “The Green Knight”; MGM went even further, with an extended behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” with Jennifer Hudson.
Only one studio, the upstart indie Neon, made any kind of real news, announcing that it will release “The Year of the Everlasting Storm,” which will feature seven short films about pandemic life from a list of global auteurs: Jafar Panâhi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Some studios trotted out actors and filmmakers: “Zola” director Bravo was joined by her editor Joi McMillon for an extended Q&A about the Sundance darling. Lionsgate asked Maggie Q, star of the action thriller “The Protégé,” to talk about about how thrilling it is for actors especially to get to see their work again in theaters.
Several majors, like Sony and Paramount, opted for more dry, trailer-heavy presentations by marketing and distribution execs. Easily the most emotional moment of the day, however, came from Focus Features’ distribution president Lisa Bunnell, who was moved to tears when talking about the deep connection she felt to moviegoing as a quiet, often bullied child.
“That human connection — just getting back together with people again — is so important to all of us,” she said. “Movies have made us cry, they made us laugh, they made us feel emotions we didn’t even know we have. But now, I think, during the pandemic, movies have the ability to heal us again.”
As for the pressures on the film industry other than the pandemic — i.e. the centrality of streaming services fueling the continued upheaval of corporate consolidation — very little of it came up during the presentation. Rodriguez mentioned Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s declaration late last week that the company plans to return to an exclusive theatrical distribution model, but he said nothing about the death of the 90-day window. Similarly, Rodriguez paid lip service to streamers that are “dipping their toes into the theatrical exhibition business,” but he did not mention them by name.
Perhaps the most off-message moment came when news outlets posted the announcement that Netflix was teaming with Schwarzenegger for his first foray into a TV series while the presentation was ongoing. Searchlight’s new chiefs, David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield, also oddly decided to mention that, while also producing six films a year for theaters, the storied indie outlet is acquiring films for streamers Hulu and Star and launching its first TV series.
It was up to Blum, who closed out the event, to finally address the multiple elephants in the room.
“Our industry is at an inflection point,” he said. “The collision of the recovery from the pandemic and all of the shifting business models and the crazy corporate consolidation, especially of the past week puts us at this intersection of recovery and also of change.”
“It’s tempting of course to quickly draw conclusions about what it all means — I think it’ll take time for us to all really figure that out,” Blum continued. “But I think it’s great that all the competitors, collectively gathered here to talk to all of you about one thing, which is how much the theatrical moviegoing experience matters.”
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