By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 24, 2012 at 6:38PM
CinemaCon works on several tracks. The studios jet in their talent for dog & pony shows and clip reels, showing off their wares to the theater owners who will book them in the coming year. There was an audible gasp Tuesday when Johnny Depp sauntered across the Caesar's Palace Colosseum stage resplendent in black jeans and artfully draped chains and visible arm tattoos, to join Tim Burton before their "Dark Shadows" clip reel. (Exhibs responded well to the comedy; Depp didn't have to say a word.) But the fact that one of the biggest movie stars in the world turned up in Las Vegas to smile at 5,000 exhibitors is the heart of this increasingly tendentious relationship, at a time of what MPAA chairman Chris Dodd calls "transformative change." All six majors and the new seventh, Lionsgate, are putting on shows this year, for the first time in a decade.
Directors from Burton, Chris Nolan, Jon Chu and Adam Shankman to Chris Rock, Chris Pine and 'Action Star of the Year" Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson thanked the exhibs for helping to make their films shine bright.
The hit of the Friday night Paramount event was Sacha Baron Cohen, who made his way through the crowd in Dictator guise, and delivered a rip-roaring stand-up routine lambasting everyone from Disney's ousted studio chief Rich Ross to fellow "dictator" Jeffrey Katzenberg: "he rules with an iron fist!" The dictator has starred in all the films his country has made, from "When Harry Kidnapped Sally," to "The 14-Year-Old Virgin" and "Planet of the Rapes." "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, except for herpes," he warned.
Paramount previewed Larry Charles' "The Dictator" (May 16) later that night at a local shopping mall (leaving many folks maroooned at 1 AM, desperately calling cabs). But the movie played. Safe to say it's a much more hilarious and less uncomfortable politically incorrect comedy than "Bruno," returning Cohen to his transgressive-but-sweet comfort zone. He's a deluded terrorist whose consciousness is raised when he hits the streets with no money, "Sullivan's Travels" style. As long as the movie didn't cost too much, Paramount should come out ahead.
I was less impressed with the footage from "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" (June 29) which basically blew a lot of things up (including the city of London) all over the world (it was filmed in Pakistan, Tokyo, the Himilayas, D.C., and Korea), adding The Rock and Bruce Willis to the mix. And while it was a relief to return to ordinary 2-D action mode with Tom Cruise as Lee Childs kick-asser Jack Reacher in Chris McQuarrie's "One Shot" (December), the movie looked like an amped-up Hollywood retread of "Drive." (On video, Cruise did admit he's not as tall as Reacher. But he can drive and kick ass, he suggested.) Cruise also turns up as a shirtless heavy metal rocker in WB's Adam Shankman 80s rock musical "Rock of Ages," due June 15. Shankman ("Hairspray") figured he could make a musical where straight guys knew all the songs, and Cruise could wear assless leather chaps.
Paramount was in boasting mode. The studio had bragging rights to number one box office standing last year--an industry global record of $5 billion, with nine $100-million movies, 'Transformers 3" passing the worldwide $1 billion mark, and 'Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol" marking the best of the franchise as well as Cruise's top-grosser. And in honor of its 100th anniversary, the studio threw a dazzling sizzle reel at the exhibs: "Sunset Boulevard," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Godfather," "Titanic," "Star Trek," "Top Gun," "Grease," "Chinatown," "Psycho," "Footloose," "Double Indemnity," "School of Rock, "Wings," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Braveheart," "Ghost," "Saving Private Ryan," "A Place in the Sun," "Witness," "Going My Way," "Lost Weekend," "Terms of Endearment," "Forrest Gump," to name a few. It only served to remind how far from that quality we are today.
As Senator Dodd, the year-long MPAA chairman said in his Tuesday speech, the studios are now offering a blend of old and new. But how much new? Remakes, sequels and retreads are still the order of the day, with added technological bells and whistles. DreamWorks' "Madagascar 3" looked like a lot of whizbang fun in Monte Carlo--adding Frances McDormand as an obsessive uber-animal control inspector (it debuts at Cannes). And Christina Steinberg, Peter Ramsay, Bill Joyce, Guillermo del Toro and David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rise of The Guardians" (November 21) aims for family-friendly Oscar-worthy artistic achievement. "Avengers"-style, the movie assembles new iterations of Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the silent Sand Man and Jack Frost (Pine) to fight evil in the form of the Boogy Man (Jude Law). "It's an epic fun movie that will speak to generations," promised director Ramsay.
Theaters have made the transition to digital --two-thirds of the way there, said NATO chief John Fithian, with the big chains on board and the smaller mom and pops struggling to pay the sticker price--and Dolby was hawking its new immersive ceiling-hung "Atmos" surround-sound. And not settling for mere digital projection, there's now laser projection too, the new frontier. IMAX is on the rise. And 35 mm, as Fithian reminded, is soon going to be dead. Nolan is fighting the good fight for 35 mm with "The Dark Knight Rises" (July 20), which looked stunning--from Thomas Hardy's masked villain Bane's destruction of a football superstadium and suspension bridge, to Anne Hathaway in catwoman leather--and offers the most IMAX (one-third) ever seen in one film. "Whatever the formats, what defines cinema is spectacle," said Nolan.
But Baz Luhrmann is shooting a drama in 3-D, WB's "The Great Gatsby" (December 25), which looked risky as hell to me, super-stylized baroque 20s period with contemporary score amd attractive cast working up melodramatic Big Emotions. This is going to be an all or nothing proposition.
And Peter Jackson's much-ballyhooed foray into fast frame rates, Part One of "The Hobbit," "An Unexpected Journey" (December 14), shot in 3-D at 48 FPS, looks like super HD TV, hard-edged and rough on skin tone in the sunlight. Big vistas and long shots in the dark between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Smeagle were fine. But fast-moving sunlight scenes with Ian McKellan as Gandalf were edgy and stark. (Jackson will adjust 2-D so that it looks like old 2-D, with blur.) There will be an adjustment to this, as Jackson via video begged exhibitors to step up yet again to accommodate this newest projection wrinkle. "It's simple," he promised. Exhibs were resistant.
Give WB's Jeff Robinov credit for taking chances across the board. His upcoming slate is full of them, from Jay Roach's pointed political comedy "The Campaign," starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis (August 10), to the Wachowskis' "Cloud Atlas," Ben Affleck's "Argo" and Alfonso Cuaron's sci-fi epic "Gravity." Stay tuned for more coverage as Fox, Sony, Disney are still to come.