At CinemaCon, the annual exhibitors' convention in Las Vegas, the studios are clearly chasing huge VFX packed event movies to pull audiences into theaters.
At the first studio presentation, hosted by Paramount co-chairman Rob Moore, the movies were big and noisy, amplified by some 495,000 watts of Dolby Atmos sound in the Colosseum theater. That's one reason they showed Michael Bay's $25 million bad boy celebration "Pain and Gain," an impeccably produced dumb-male comedy starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris and Rebel Wilson. Written by A-list writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely ("Captain America" and "Narnia"), the bone-cracking, blood-spurting, neck-crunching sound on this movie was as calibrated and deafening as Bay's "Transformer" films. And Bay's delivering more of them: the next one, due in 2014, was shot with IMAX cameras.
In fact, Paramount has pacted to do five more films with IMAX. Chris Nolan shot some IMAX sequences for Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," shown on 150 IMAX screens, and doubled them in "The Dark Knight Rises," shown on 600 IMAX theaters. Now he will shoot all of Paramount's "Interstellar" in IMAX. Guillermo del Toro also used IMAX cameras for his gargantuan WB monster movie "Pacific Rim."
The studios believe that making movies bigger and louder will create event destinations for moviegoers. Make "The Hobbit" at a higher 48 per second frame rate, in 3-D, project it with laser projectors and immersive audio like Dolby Atmos and they will come. The average sound system is 4000 watts of power: Dolby Atmos is 495,000.
But the films that Paramount presented at CinemaCon were disturbing. "Pain and Gain" was a noisy soulless misogynistic enterprise that no woman will want to see, certainly. This Miami actioner about idiotic muscle-bound weight lifters who bungle their kidnapping of a rich asshole (Tony Shalhoub) is the low-budget labor of love Bay really wanted to make. "It's my little movie," Bay told the exhibitors, looking nervous. Last year the theater owners ate up raunchfest "Ted," but they are allergic to R-rated violence like this. Sure enough, it did not play well.
Producer-star and self-described "Zombie expert" Brad Pitt turned up to hype the long-delayed "World War Z," which looks like yet another big-scale well-wrought movie--in the service of terrifying audiences out of their seats. Pitt said he wanted to make a movie that his boys could see. "We faced two Herculean challenges," he said. "How to keep the global spectacular scale" of the Max Brooks novel, and not have it look like just another zombie movie.
No worries there. The footage shows how swiftly a virus can turn a human into a rabid fast-moving attacking zombie. This is "Walking Dead" on steroids. Our scientist hero (Pitt) manages to save his family, against all odds, and sets out to save the world ("A Better Tomorrow" anyone?). One horrifying sequence in Israel posits a contained community safe behind a giant wall, until a swarm of zombies, ant-like, crawls upon each other to scale it. Another scene on a quiet plane devolves into a zombie attack. Terrifying. Well-executed. But will audiences want to put themselves through this when it finally opens June 21? In immersive 3-D?
"Star Trek Into Darkness" (May 17) is a much stronger commercial bet, even if Paramount managed to convince a reluctant J.J. Abrams to make it in 3-D. They showed him test footage and he went along for the ride. Based on the 18 minutes of footage shown at CinemaCon I wish he hadn't --it's the kind of in-your-face 3-D that I thought moviemakers had left behind. One sequence shows Bones (Karl Urban) and Kirk (Chris Pine) running from angry primitives on a planet they are trying to save from an active volcano. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is lowered down to the mouth of the volcano to try and prevent it from erupting. Bones and Kirk dive off a cliff and swim to The Enterprise, which is hiding below the ocean so as not to disturb the prime directive. Another superb action sequence propels Kirk and Harrison into space at hurtling speed through debris toward a tiny hatch that Scotty (Simon Pegg) has to open at just the right moment. Great stuff. (Trailer below.)
Producer-writer Damon Lindeloff did the hosting honors, while Abrams works on the final mix. Bass-voiced Benedict Cumberbatch's Harrison makes a formidable mind-bending opponent for hot-shot Kirk, who on this voyage matures from a brash and arrogant guy with something to prove, a bearded, grey-suited Pine told the CinemaCon crowd. "Kirk leads with his heart and has to learn how to censor himself." Terrorist Harrison "brings Kirk to his knees," said Pine, who mentioned Monday's Boston attacks as a reminder that "terrorism is still part of our lives."
Kirk becomes "a leader, not just a captain," said Quinto, who added that he and Leonard Nimoy talked about how much heart Spock has, even if it's hard not to show it much. Playing him "can be a challenge as an actor," Quinto admitted. In this film he gets to be more physical, he said.
The fourth quarter brings Pine in the title role in Paramount's latest Tom Clancy movie, "Jack Ryan," plus other less visceral pleasures from Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street") and Jason Reitman ("Labor Day"). Thankfully, the theaters will be able to turn down the volume.