CINEMACON: Universal Panel Offers Strong, Diverse Line-Up & Many Laughs

The first big presentation on Day 2 of CinemaCon was the Universal presentation, introduced by Mark Zoradi, the CEO from Cinemark. Universal’s President of Domestic Distribution Jim Orr was the MC for the event with the obligatory corporate pat-on-the-back for the successes the studio had in 2018 and in 2019, including its Best Picture Oscar for Green Book.

He then introduced newly-appointed Chairman of Universal’s Filmed Entertainment Group Donna Langley, who showed off a sizzle reel of the likes of Maggie Smith, Jordan Peele, Seth Rogen, Paul Feig, Emma Thompson, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Blum, Tom Hooper, M. Night Shyamalan, Rebel Wilson and others talking about their earliest theatrical experiences and celebrating the same. (Obviously, the reel mostly focused on Universal’s films from the past.)

First up was Chris Meledandri, CEO from Illumination Entertainment, to showcase The Secret Life of Pets 2 and their other movies in production with the Grinch on the screen making a crack about Meledandri being bald but whose “last name isn’t Fithian.” He did in fact start his presentation by talking about The Grinch, as the highest-grossing Christmas-themed movie in history.  That helped push Illumination’s total box office to just over 6 billion in ten years.

The sequel to the animated blockbuster which made $875 million globally and had the biggest opening ever for an original movie brings back many of the popular characters from the first movie joined by Harrison Ford, making his animated voice debut as Rooster.

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In the sequel, the bunny Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart, realizes he’s no longer the most adorable pet, as he has direct competition from a Shih Tsu named Daisy, voiced by Hart’s Night School nemesis Tiffany Haddish. They came out on stage carrying live representations of their characters, Haddish with an adorable Shih Tsu and Hart with a white bunny rabbit. They came out and riffed a bit before the rabbit started humping Kevin Hart’s shoulder. (For some reason, I thought the rabbit had peed or defecated on his all-purple outfit.) They were both very funny, mainly  because they almost immediately went off-script from the teleprompter.

They then showed a long sizzle reel of footage to UNK’s “Walk it Out” to introduce the new characters and how the sequel will focus more on the emotional journey of pets, as we see them going to a specialist in pets’ behavioral disorders. It featured a lot of the same cute and somewhat gross things being done by the pets. Apparently Max, voiced by Patton Oswalt, has to contend with the fact the family’s toddler is going to preschool, and Max wants him to stay home where he’s safe (so actually, it’s a somewhat similar plot device as the one in Toy Story 4). We did get to see Harrison Ford’s Rooster briefly, and get to see Snowball being beaten up by a crazed monkey.

Appropriately enough, A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, was next, and actor Dennis Quaid and director Gail Mancuso came out with Quaid’s bulldog Peaches. They called the sequel to the 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose, which grossed $200 million worldwide, “more than a dog movie… a love story.” The footage showed a lot of the dog Bailey, voiced by Josh Gad, now quite a bit older, as is Dennis Quaid’s Ethan. Bailey also has a new addition to his family with a toddler named CJ, whom Ethan tells Bailey to watch over, but when CJ goes away, Bailey follows, and he ends up coming back as a puppy, trying to find CJ at various ages to fulfill his mission to watch her.

Producer Jason Blum came out next to talk about Blumhouse Production’s 2018 successes including Spike Lee’s Oscar for the screenplay for BlackKklansman, the huge success of Halloween, as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass and Jordan Peele’s latest, Us. He mentioned Craig Zobel’s action-thriller The Hunt, written by  David Lindelof and Nick Cuse (The Leftovers), which opens on Oct. 18. It stars Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley (This is Us) and Glenn Howerton, although that’s all he had to say about it, and there was no footage to show.

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But first for Blumhouse is the May 31 release of Tate Taylor’s Ma, starring Octavia Spencer, which he says continues Blumhouse’s tradition of “messing with your minds, exceeding your expectations, and hopefully freaking you out,” Blum said. Spencer, who we “get to watch do some very deviant things,” came out on stage with Taylor to show footage, probably the first time since they presented The Help at CinemaCon years ago.
Having been roommates for seven years, they talked about how the idea for Ma came together with Octavia telling Tate she wanted to do something very different, and he wrote and directed a movie that Taylor described as “very freaky.”

“I got to do some very disturbing and freaky things, mean and hateful, terrible, awful, worse than the pie I made in The Help,” Spencer added referring to… well, if you saw The Help you’ll know to what she was referring.

“Everyone thinks Octavia is all kisses and cupcakes, but let me tell you, [her Help character] Minnie has definitely left the building,” Taylor added, joking, “Truthfully, I think it’s the closest she’s ever played to her real self.” “Tate, do not test me,” Spencer responded.

Spencer mentioned the film shows “how the effects of childhood bullying lasts for a long time and how long revenge can wait.”

They then showed an extended version of the trailer, which shows just a little bit more of the basement in Ma’s house, including the fact she doesn’t allow swearing down there, but it also shows more of her craziness and devious behavior, as well.

Next up was Girls Trip and Night School producer Will Packer to talk about his upcoming slate with Will Packer Productions, and he told the crowd about his first experience as a filmmaker sneaking into ShoWest many years ago and convincing exhibitors to show his first movie. Apparently, this weekend’s new comedy Littlewas generated by Marsae Martin from black-ish, who pitched the movie to Packer when she was ten years old, making her the youngest executive producer in film history. She even has a first-look deal with Universal for more movie ideas she might have!

Marsae came out with Regina Hall, Issa Rae and writer/director Tina Gordon to talk about the movie, Hall returning after showing Girls Trip at CinemaCon two years back, and she mentioned being back with three fantastic women. Issa Rae plays Regina Hall’s assistant who ends up having to babysit her when another girl wishes Hall’s character was “little,” at which point her character is played by Martin.

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Oscar winner Danny Boyle was next, coming out to talk about his upcoming film Yesterday, the musical movie written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), which comes out June 28.  “I’m from Planet Brexit, so you have my apologies up front,” he joked. He told the exhibitors how Curtis’ script found the way to him. “I have to admit that for the first few pages, I had no idea why anyone thought why I might be interested in it. It’s about this guy Jack who is running low on his luck trying to become a musician, playing a bunch of sad, empty gigs around his home.”

“It’s sweet but pretty straight-forward and then about ten pages in, something magical happens,” Boyle continued. “The electricity around the world goes off for a few seconds, and he gets hit by a bus, and when he wakes up, he’s the only person on the planet who remembers the Beatles. It’s like they never existed.”

He then showed an extended trailer with new footage from the movie, showing the story of Jack, a musician who gets hit by a car while riding his bike during a blackout, and when he recovers (having lost a tooth), he’s the only one who remembers the Beatle. In one scene, he’s playing “Yesterday” for his friend Ellie (Lily James) and a few friends, and they think Jack wrote the song. When he tells them the Beatles wrote it, their response is “Who?” When he tries to tell them they’re the greatest band of all time, his mother says, “It’s not Coldplay.” He goes on Google and can’t find them mentioned on the internet either. He’s then playing “Let It Be” on the piano for his parents who keep getting interruptions. It’s a pretty great high concept where Jack ends up getting a record contract based on the Beatles songs he claims to be writing with Kate McKinnon playing the A&R person who signs him. There’s also a bit with James Corden where Jack is asked to write a song on the spot, so he starts playing “Something in the Way.” There’s even a cameo by Ed Sheeran who is introducing Jack’s massive gig at Wembley Stadium.

Boyle then brought out Himesh Patel, the star of the movie who brought his guitar on stage to play The Beatles’ “Yesterday” live for the exhibitors. On paper, it seemed a bit like New Line’s Blinded by the Light, which got a lot of hype out of Sundance and screened the night before, only with the Beatles rather than Bruce Springsteen, but it looks so much better than Gurinder Chadha’s film, maybe because it’s kind of like a musical version of Boyle’s 28 Days Later, if you think about it.  I’m a little bummed I’m going to miss the premiere of Yesterday at Tribeca.

Peter Levensohn, President and Chief Distribution Officer, then came out for another pep talk and to introduce Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to talk about their upcoming comedy Good Boys, another movie which could be one of the summer’s sleeper hits. They joked that following Levensohn was a tough act to follow, like playing after Led Zeppelin – they were being facetious obviously, but they were quite funny and they quickly brought out the film’s young stars Jacob Tremblay, Keith Williams and Brady Noone, who said they weren’t allowed to watch their own trailer “without adult supervision” even though they said all the bad words themselves. Tremblay apologized for what the audience were about to see them do and say. “Please believe that this is not us; this is our characters, okay?” he said. “I make a promise to every single one of you that we are angels,” Noone added.  Seth gave them blindfolds and noise-cancelling headphones before showing the new extended trailer, which didn’t make them happy.

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Mostly set to the tune of Fun.’s “We Are Young,” we meet these three 6thgraders who are best friends, and just learning about things like sex and girls. Much of the footage dealt with the three of them trying to learn how to kiss, since they didn’t want to go to a party and up being bad at kissing. First, they try to spy on his neighbor “who is a nymphomaniac,” Tremblay claims. When one of the other boys asks if she starts fires, he responds, “No, she’s a NYMPHOmaniac. She has sex on land AND sea.”  They then use a drone to spy on a couple girls kissing who steal the drone, so they have to get that back. Then the boys decide to go online to something called “Pornhub” to learn how to kiss … and it’s not what they were expecting. “How many husbands does she have?” one of them asks as they’re aghast by what they see.  We also see more of the boys finding sex toys in one of their parent’s closet and thinking they’re weapons. In another scene, one of the boys also finds an “indoor swing” in that same closet and we see him hanging in a sex swing, not realizing what it’s for. Noone’s character also has a younger sister who seems to know more about everything than they do, and she keeps sneaking up on the boys and scaring them, at one point announcing, “I know what cocaine is.” She also explains what that swing is used for.

This looks absolutely hilarious with a LOT of swearing, and Tremblay is just as adorable as in his other movies even when he clearly needs to have his mouth washed out with soap – same with the other two kids. The movie premiered at SXSW last month, but I can’t wait to see it on August 16.

DreamWorks Animation’s new president Margie Cohen came out to introduce Abominable, the third movie about Sasquatches/Yetis this year. Director Jill Culton and co-director Todd Wilderman came out to talk about the movie, but it was a real come-down from the Good Boys segment. They showed some work-in-progress footage which shows more about the main character than the trailer, and frankly, it looks better than both Smallfoot and Missing Link, but it also looks like it uses some of the same beats from How to Train Your Dragon. That opens on September 27.

Focus Features President John McLaughlin came out to give a first look at the movie based on the Golden Globe-winning Julian Fellowes’ series Downton Abbey, with the Crawley family’s story continuing with the addition of a few new characters. Apparently, the king and queen are coming to Downton Abbey, and everyone excited about the visit. Honestly, I’ve never seen the show, but it definitely looks like my kind of thing, so I assume that fans of the show will enjoy where the movie goes as well. (That said, I HATED Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, so…)

Next up was Last Christmas with director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), writer/actor Emma Thompson and Henry Golding, who came out wearing Santa hats to show the first footage from their film.  Thompson was approached to write a movie based on the George Michael song “Last Christmas,” which she admits she didn’t like very much, but it took her seven years to write it before sending it off to Paul Feig, who had wanted to make a Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. He immediately cast Golding, who he had just worked with in A Simple Favor. Golding talked about the months spent celebrating Christmas in London. They spoke about making the movie and how they got two weeks off for Christmas and then had to return and finish the movie for six weeks after Christmas.  They also teased the music of the late George Michael in the movie coming out this November, including a new song that’s never been heard before. To be honest, I’m not even sure I heard Michael’s song “Last Christmas” before! (By the way, I’m not sure any person could possibly have as much fun in Las Vegas as Thompson seemed to be having her first time there. When she came back later to show Amazon Studios’ Late Night, in which she stars, she seemed even more sloshed than during this presentation.)

In the first footage for Last Christmas, we see Emilia Clarke (from Game of Thrones) getting a job as an elf at a Christmas store in London, even though apparently, she hates Christmas. Her boss is played by Michelle Yeoh, so bonus to Feig for hiring two of the cast from Crazy Rich Asians, while Emma Thompson plays her mother. It’s basically a holiday rom-com with Clarke being wooed by Golding, and actually, Clarke seems well-suited for the comedy part of the movie, going by the footage. Apparently, Clarke is also a singer in the movie, so the movie reminds me as much of Will Ferrell’s Elf (directed by Jon Favreau!) than it does Love, Actually (in which Thompson starred.)

Queen and Slim writer and producer Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None) came out next, remarking that “We’re going from a very white Christmas to a very black movie.” She introduced the film’s director Melina Matsoukas as the “future of cinema,” directing her first film based on Lena’s script. Waithe said that every thing Matsoukas directs becomes a “conversation piece” including Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and the “Nike: Equality” promotion.  Matsoukas gave more compliments back to Waithe, who called their film “protest art” that’s meant to get people talking. “It’s not meant to give the audience answers but instead to ask questions, “Waithe said, “Showing what it’s like to be black and in love while the world is burning all around you.” Apparently, it’s about a woman named Queen and a guy named Slim who are pulled over by the police and form a bond while dealing with adversity. “What pulls most people apart, gives them strength,” Matsoukas read. “In tragedy, they stand in truth, they stand in love.”  Waithe then brought out the film’s stars Jodie Turner-Smith (True Blood, Nightflyers) and Oscar-nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) to show the first footage from the movie that just wrapped filming last week.

“This project has been a dream come true for me,” Smith said. “To be in the creative hands of Melina and to say Lena’s words was a lifechanging experience, and to be standing next to an actor as gifted as Daniel, was not only an honor, but a true education. Thank you for taking this epic ride with me.”

“Being next to Jodi and these women in a moment like this is a pleasure, and the feeling is mutual, Jodi” Kaluuya responded. “I knew I wanted to be in this film from the moment I read the script. In fact, they offered me an opportunity to work with bold, visionary filmmakers like Lena and Melina, who were speaking our collective truth was a gift. Movies that embody underrepresented voices and points of view have not had as easy access of the kind of platform that you provide. We are thrilled that Make Read and Universal built a bridge from us to you, and you’ll be welcoming us into your theaters.”

They showed some really nice-looking footage, and though you couldn’t really get a very good idea what the movie was about, it seemed a bit like a modern, romantic reinvention of Bonnie and Clyde. Smith’s Queen asks Kaluuya’s Slim what he wants to which he responds, “I want somebody that’s gonna ride or die.” “What does that even mean?” she asks, to which he says, “I just want somebody who’s going to love me, no matter what.” We then see them being stopped by a police officer, and whatever happens next, sends them on the run. “That’s all I need,” Slim’s voice-over continues. “She’s gonna be my legacy.” Not sure what else to think about it, but it opens on November 27, so Universal some time to work on the marketing.

The panel was starting to get quite long, but they clearly saved the best and biggest for last as Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) came out to introduce the movie, the ninth film in the franchise and the first spin-off from the series, bringing out Dwayne Johnson (returning as Luke Hobbs) and Jason Statham (Deckard Shaw) to talk about the movie and do an amusing little schtick.

“Thanks for calling Idris Elba the sexiest man alive,” Johnson responded to Leitch’s mention of the honor bestowed upon the film’s main bad guy. “That’s a bunch of bullsh*t.”  Dwayne decided to skip the script on the teleprompter, because he was supposed to say “Look at this amazing crowd” but he said he couldn’t see a thing from the stage.
Johnson said that their goal was to “build out the Fast and Furious franchise, we wanted to create something that was special and create something that had our own tapestry, feel, our own energy, but the bottom line is that we wanted to make something that was fun. “We reached the top level of fun with the Fast and Furiousmovies – I’m talking about FUN. Like that level of fun,” he said. He then introduced Statham by calling him the second sexiest bald man, and Statham just wrily responded, “Funny man.”

Johnson then gave a fairly long (off-teleprompter) speech about a moment in the footage they were about to show from the movie where the “air changes.” He explained that the movie will go both to Statham’s home in London, as well as the islands to show off Johnson’s Samoan culture with the Samoan version of a Haka called “Siva Tau.” The two actors riffed on the title and the fact that Hobbs’ name is first – Statham claimed that Shaw’s name was first, at one point, but Johnson claimed that he paid a lot of money to get it switched. This was their introduction to an extended trailer for Hobbs & Shaw, which shows a LOT that wasn’t in the first trailer.

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The footage began with the two guys coming to two doors and trying to decide which one each will take. Hobbs tells Shaw to “pick a door,” but when he does, Hobbs says, “No, that’s my door. Pick another door.” Shaw goes over to the door and opens it, seeing there’s a lot of men behind it, and goes back and says, “You know, you were right. This is your door.” “What’s the matter, you got a lot of bad guys behind the door?” Hobbs asks. Hobbs goes to the other door, and it’s just one giant guy —  big even when compared to Johnson – wielding a wrench, so Shaw is forced to fight all these guys while Hobbs takes out the other guy. There’s a window between the two rooms, so they each could watch the other guy’s progress and snark at each other. Hobbs uses the large man’s face to get access to the next room, but Shaw can’t get one of the guys he takes out to access his door.
We also got to see more of Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s sister and even another cameo by Helen Mirren as their mum, who is now in jail after what happened in The Fate of the Furious. She tells Deckard to look after his sister, who apparently took a population-destroying virus from Idris Elba’s character that he wants back.  Shaw says he’ll take care of it, but his sister says they need to work together as a team, because they’re being hunted by an army of mercenaries led by a genetically-enhanced solider, as we see more of Elba in action, dubbing himself the “black Superman.”

Eventually, Hobbs thinks they need to “get off the grid” by going home to get his brothers (including Roman Reigns) to help, as he tells his mother, “This family is going to war. We’re going to need cars and guns,” but when he opens the gun closet, there are no guns, just a bunch of distinctive Samoan weapons. “Let’s get old school,” Hobbs says, and we see a quick scene of him and his brothers doing the Siva Tau and facing off with an army of mercenaries using the weapons we saw earlier.  I’m not going to spoil it but there’s one moment in the footage that was as insane as the moment when Johnson grabbed and re-aimed a torpedo in Fate of the Furious.  If there’s any doubt this movie is going to be awesome from that first trailer, this new footage is going to blow people away.

Donna Langley came back out and mentioned Sam Mendes’ upcoming war film 1917, which she called “the definition of immersive theatrical experience” before introducing Tom Hooper’s movie based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which will be released this Christmas, the same general weekend as Hooper and Universal’s previous hit musical collaboration on Les Miserables. Having just finished production, they weren’t able to show any finished footage but did show some behind-the-scenes footage from production, including interviews with Hooper, who first saw the musical Cats at ten years old, and all of the primary cast — Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson and Jason Derulo— all talking about their respective roles.   The reason there was no footage to show was because Hooper was using cutting edge performance capture technology to turn the performers into living cats, so we got to watch a lot of footage of people dancing in those sensor suits. Apparently, they have built giant sets for the film, so the entire cast will look “cat-sized,” too, so that should be interesting.

The Universal presentation aptly ended with Jennifer Hudson coming out to give a show-stopping performance of “Memory” from Cats, accompanied only by piano. If her performance in the movie is as good as her performance at CinemaCon, we might see Hudson back at the Oscars next year.

This was a fairly straight-ahead presentation for Universal, mainly showing movies that are already on the release schedule through the rest of the year, rather than giving previews of anything 2020, but it was a solid show. Overall, Universal has a fine slate and the pacing for the show was just right, a little more laid-back than yesterday’s Warner Bros. panel but still with enough fun and excitement to keep exhibitors sated for the remainder of the year.
As of this writing, one of the biggest presentations from Disney was yet to come, especially with the recent acquisition of Fox that went through less than two weeks ago, but as you can read in my write-up, it ended up being quite a let-down after the fantastic Universal panel.

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