CinemaCon taking place as challenges, disruptions mount

LAS VEGAS • The movie business may be struggling, but the number of people making efforts - both of the superheroic and lower-budget variety - to profit from it seems as big as ever.

Producers and cinema operators are flocking to Las Vegas this week for CinemaCon.

The convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners will host a record 11 studio presentations - including ones from newer film-makers such as Amazon and STX - to a new high of more than 3,700 registrants.

With domestic attendance falling to a 25-year low last year, the business is being forced to change.

Walt Disney has led the box office in recent years by focusing on big-budget action films, counting on superhero dramas and serial tales. Newer players are gambling on stories with more modest budgets.

Theatre owners need both.

"The commitment the studios have made to film production for the next five years is unprecedented," said Mr Tim Richards, founder of Vue Entertainment, a British cinema operator. "And what's really exciting is that we have new entrants like Amazon."

In years past, the biggest topic at CinemaCon might have been flavoured popcorn, 3D screens or the studios' push to release new movies for home viewing sooner - at the expense of multiplex owners.

This year, the industry is gathering against the backdrop of deals and disruption.

Disney is buying much of 21st Century Fox. AT&T is trying to digest Time Warner, parent of Warner Bros.

An upstart marketing company called MoviePass is offering consumers unlimited admissions for as little as US$6.95 (S$9.20) a month.

North American box-office sales this year will probably be roughly flat at US$11.2 billion, said Mr Leo Kulp, analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

The summer movie season, a big part of the annual take, opens soon with Avengers: Infinity War, the latest superhero film from Disney's Marvel division.

While cinema owners basked in the breakout of Black Panther earlier this year, the industry is still confronting slack attendance.

Higher ticket prices have had to do much of the lifting to maintain revenue.

Then there is MoviePass. The money-losing business is attending CinemaCon in hopes of gaining more industry support.

"We are really looking forward to the opportunity to create a more open dialogue with the film community - exhibitors, studios and distributors - about how to implement a subscription model that benefits the entire ecosystem," said chief executive Mitch Lowe. "It takes time for an industry to adopt and embrace change, but we all share the common goal of driving more people into the theatre."

Film distributors such as Amazon Studios and Universal's Focus Features, meanwhile, will be making the case that mid-budget movies provide more bang for the buck.

Focus' presentation will include BlacKkKlansman, about an African-American cop infiltrating a white supremacist group, and biopic Mary Queen Of Scots.

Saudi Arabia's foray into entertainment is bringing some optimism to the show, underscoring the fact that global markets are still growing.

Black Panther was released there this month, marking the first commercial cinema screening in the country in more than 35 years.

It is a big deal for companies such as Vue, which is planning to build 30 theatres in Saudi Arabia.

"I've never seen an opportunity quite like this," Mr Richards said. "This is a completely clean slate, which makes it very, very exciting."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2018, with the headline 'CinemaCon taking place as challenges, disruptions mount'. Print Edition | Subscribe