MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

CinemaCon 2011: Who needs Home Premiere, when you can have hot dog sliders, gourmet licorice, ‘Puss and Boots’?

Even without the release of news about the launch of Home Premiere – Hollywood’s latest attempt to have its cake and nibble from everyone else’s plate, too – there was a portentous air surrounding last week’s inaugural CinemaCom convention. NATO members clearly enjoyed themselves during preview sessions and screenings, but the urge to count fingers after shaking the hands of studio executives was palpable, as well.

From my point of view in the mezzanine seats, it was clear that the men and women paid handsomely to distribute and market films worldwide – and be introduced ad nauseum at gatherings like this – are as anxious about the future of PPV/VOD as any of the exhibitors. Their jobs are to put fannies in the seats of theaters, both in established and emerging markets. The more fannies that remain at home, on couches and easy chairs, the smaller their bonus checks will be.

Fortunately for them, anyway, blockbusters and action pictures play as well overseas as they do down the block. Indeed, one exhibitor’s turkey can be another’s filet mignon. “The Last Airbender,” “Eclipse,” “The Golden Compass,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and, even, “I Love You Phillip Morris” are just a few of the recent titles that laid eggs in the U.S, but succeeded in foreign markets, many of which are considered to be under-screened.

It partially explains why CinemaCon was light on full-length screenings of potential blockbusters and mid-budget question marks, and heavy on sneakpeaks ranging in length from a few seconds to nearly a half-hour. One couldn’t help but be excited by the previews of “Puss and Boots,” “Cars 2” and “Harry Potter,” without also longing for the traditional Tuesday and Wednesday-evening screenings of upcoming studio movies. NATO always has seemed to me to be an unreasonably optimistic lot, even as its members are being exhorted to spend tens of millions of dollars on upgrading their facilities, as George Lucas did at the dawn of the digital age with “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”

Maybe the studios were saving their best stuff for the next meeting of Apple, Microsoft and Netflix shareholders. Those audiences, at least, would have a legitimate reason for applauding the downsizing of the Hollywood dream factory.

Fact is, though, movie theaters aren’t going away any time soon and thank goodness for that. Teenagers and the parents of young children wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen, anyway.

Adults and film buffs in so-called major markets will have only the period between Halloween and Christmas to anticipate movies intended for awards consideration. If any of those pictures garner nominations, they might make to the boonies by January. If not, they’ll quickly move straight-to-DVD or PPV. For exhibitors, this translates to feast of famine.

The full-length movies shown during regular hours inside Caesars Palace’s spacious Colosseum theater – a vast improvement from previous shows, where one venue couldn’t handle the entire mob — either were overtly “family friendly” (Sony’s “Zookeeper” ) or aimed specifically at the action crowd (Lionsgate’s “Warrior”). The extended previews were similarly targeted, with the standouts being DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s “Shrek”-spinoff, “Puss and Boots,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” and Marvel/Paramount’s “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”; DreamWorks’ “Fright Night” and “Real Steel”; Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover 2,” “The Green Lantern” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”; Disney’s “Cars 2,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “The Avengers,” “The Muppets” and “Winnie the Pooh”; and Lionsgate’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” “The Abduction,” “The Devil’s Double” and “Conan the Barbarian in 3D.” The only two movies previewed that would be considered adult fare were DreamWorks’ “War Horse” and “The Help.”

This was in marked contrast to previous years’ conventions (a.k.a., ShoWest), when the crowd was invited to sample such offbeat romances as “The Back-Up Plan,” “Letters to Juliet,” “The Proposal” and “Whatever Works,” alongside the potential blockbusters. The indie showcase was moved from its debut position on Monday night, to Tuesday, and the only other movie designed to “make us think” (Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”) was shown in the 10:30 p.m. slot. This year’s low-budget hopefuls included three documentaries — Roadside Attraction’s “Thunder Soul,” Magnolia Films’ “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” and Cinedigm Entertainment Group’s “The Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” – as well as the gotta-dance drama, “Go For It!,” and National Geographic Films’ “The First Grader,” another feel-good drama based on actual events. (Opening this week, “Foo Fighters” provides fans and exhibitors with an opportunity to piggy-back the movie with a live-via-satellite concert, in 3D.)

Needless to say, all of the movies and previews looked great on the humongous screen installed by Harkness in Celine Dion’s home away from home. It didn’t hurt, either, that the box-car sized projection booth was stocked with state-of-the-art equipment, including backup units, manufactured by all of the leading companies. The expense of deploying the machinery for use during James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg and George Lucas’ technical seminars, alone, could very well have equaled the cost of unseating the Egyptian government. Like athletes with shoe contracts, filmmakers insist on showcasing their movie on machinery made by companies that have their backs, financially, and NATO had no other choice than to comply with their demands.

It’s the rare theater owner who enjoys that kind of luxury, so when the distinguished trio discussed adding to their projectors the capability of boosting frame rates, from 24 to 48 or 60 per second, the tightening of sphincters could be felt on the dais. In response, all three of the film-making giants attempted to reassure the beleaguered exhibitors by explaining how investments that’d already made in digital projection, large-format screens and 3D technology would make the transition far less costly than it sounds.

Cameron, Lucas, Katzenberg and other filmmakers represented at CinemaCon stated their resistance to any new distribution strategy that would diminish the scope of their pictures and discourage viewers from experiencing movies in a social context. One went so far as to hold his smartphone up to the mega-screen and ask audience members – rhetorically, of course — which viewing experience they would prefer.
Home Premiere backers Warner Bros., Sony, Universal and 20th Century Fox echoed that sentiment on paper, at least, in their press-release introduction to the company. The branded service kicks off next month on DirecTV and Comcast with the Warner Bros.’ thriller, “Unknown,” and Sony rom-com, “Just Go With It,” both of which did reasonably well in their initial theatrical release, in February. The cost to rent a pre-released “premium” movie for a couple of days has been set at $30, which is more than a monthly subscription to HBO or Showtime and all of their offshoot channels.

If that isn’t an incentive for pirates to put the same product on the streets simultaneously, it’s difficult to imagine a better one. Why pay $30 to lease a picture for a short period of time, when you can burn a DVD off of a TiVo recording or download it from a fly-by-night website? Moreover, why not wait another month and enjoy the bonus features included in the Blu-ray package, as well?

“I’m on your side on the video-on-demand issue,” announced Todd Phillips, director of “The Hangover” and its sequel, which was being previewed on Thursday. “If I had wanted to make movies for television, I would have been a TV director.”

It brought a huge cheer from audience members, of course. How much say any film maker would have in the choice of the service’s “premiere titles” remains unknown. Nobody in attendance doubted, however, that the studios would shorten release windows even more, or reduce prices, if the intended results didn’t materialize.

This isn’t to imply the major studios are alone in the pursuit of the home viewer. Distributors of independent, foreign and documentary fare have been experimenting with simultaneous multiple-platform delivery for several years now. Steven Soderbergh, HDNet and Magnolia kicked things off in 2007, with “Bubble” and, later, “The Girlfriend Experience.” He also helped launch the PPV/VOD service, IFC in Theaters, by agreeing to a one-week window for “Che,” before the Cannes favorite was made available to home audiences.

Last fall, the entire 330 minutes of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” were made available to subscribers of Sundance Channel, a week ahead of it being shown in theaters at a more easily digestible length. IFC’s Festival Direct has offered its customers access to movies opening concurrently at such festivals as SXSW. With such exposure, festival audiences might have been the only ones to see the movies. The PPV/VOD marketplace also has offered opportunities for distributors of genre films, especially horror and science-fiction. With increasingly more screen inventory being devoted to Hollywood pictures, these ports in the economic storm have been welcomed by aspiring filmmakers and adventurous distributors, alike.

No NATO convention would be complete without a visit or two to the exhibition floor, where purveyors of everything from popcorn to plumbing supplies can be found.

Even if nothing new is likely to overtake popcorn as the king bee of concessions, it’s fun to check out fresh variations on time-honored themes, interesting new candy flavors and repurposed staples. The only thing that was noticeably different in the popcorn arena was the presence of the Russian manufacturer of Robopop, a gigantic hot-air popper that’s fully automatic and requires no human operator. It’s as if Marx, Lenin, Sergei Eisenstein and Dr. Zhivago never existed.

It provided a reminder that movie-going has become as much as pastime in foreign markets as it’s been for more than a century in the U.S. On Monday, Warner Bros. International Cinemas president Millard Ochs predicted that in 10 years, China would surpass the U.S. in total box-office revenues. In 2010, revenue there was up nearly 65 percent, to $1.5 billion, half of that coming from 3D titles.

In Russia, total box-office topped $1 billion, making it the fifth largest in the world. It explains why some eyes in Hollywood have begun to focus on emerging markets outside North America and western Europe. Once known primarily as havens for pirates, Russia and China now represent hope for the future of traditional distribution. It probably will take a few years before consumers in such places will be encouraged by studios to watch movies on their telephones, anyway.

If any food makes a theater lobby smell as tasty as the palm oil once used to pop corn, it’s a hot dog being cooked on a roller grill or broiler. Even the ones that have been sitting there for a week, or so, somehow retain the power to tempt the senses.

Thus, my nose led my feet to booths manned by employees of Nathan’s Famous and Eisenberg Gourmet Hot Dogs. They’ve been regular stops on the tour for more several years, now, and the frankfurters found there – and to a more mass-marketed way, Oscar Mayer – have changed little in all of that time.

This year, though, something truly different emerged: pint-sized sausages called Slider Dogs and Minis, respectively. It’s no secret that the success of White Castle’s hamburger “sliders” – or Slyders – has inspired restaurateurs throughout the U.S. to come up with variations on the small, square burger and sell it as if they invented it. In the last few years, slider fever has grown to the point that high-class joints are making them out of Kobe beef and selling them for $20-plus a pop.

In some New York and Las Vegas specialty restaurants, chefs compete to see how many trendy tastes they can add to their slider, before it collapses. According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, celebrity chef Joël Robuchon constructed a $36 variant from two Wagyu beef patties, which are topped with a small slab of foie gras on a brioche bun, with baby watercress, pickled vegetables, ginger ketchup and crinkle-cut fries.

So, who could blame the folks at Nathan’s and Eisenberg’s, whose products are already nearly perfect, for pushing slider hot dogs? A publicity flyer for Nathan’s argues, “Almost everyone in the business is offering some kind of chicken wing, now there’s a new item that has the same potential: the Nathan’s Slider Dog.” Weighing in at 1.5 ounces, they literally resemble baby hotdogs and can accommodate any condiment not longer than 3.5 inches. They can be purchased individually or in boxes, bags and wheel barrows.

For its part, Eisenberg’s Mini is made from Black Angus beef and it arrives in 2-ounce portions. It, too, can be purchased in a variety of packaging units and for prices that tend to reflect the unconscionably high markups allowed in our nation’s entertainment venues. Both products are delicious, in an amusing sort of way, and far less nutritious than they are fun to devour in mass quantities.

Freschetta also was nearby, promoting its three-meat Italian flatbread sandwich, which, itself, is kind of a miniature pita concoction. It’s the flatbread that finally completes the connection between American Indians, Asian Indians and Christopher Columbus’ native Italy.

Also a must-taste attraction at the show, White Castle doesn’t seem likely to expand its concessions menu to include Kobe or Waygu sliders, any time soon. Its diners now offer fish, chicken ring and chicken breast sandwiches (w/cheese) and a pulled-pork number, promoted in one the grossest YouTube shorts in the short history of YouTube.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi offer far more variants on their traditional products than would seem humanly possible, including numerous permutations of cola, non-cola sodas, coffee and ice tea, energy and sports drinks, lemonade and limonade, water, vitamin water and juices. My favourite new drink is Pom Wonderful, a beverage made from 100 percent pomegranate juice or blends with other fruits and berries. It promises curative powers nearly as powerful as the waters at Lourdes, but I like it mostly because it agreed to be one of the sponsors of Spurlock’s documentary on product placement, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

I was also impressed by the vast number of flavors and textures of refreshments commonly referred to as smoothies or slushees. Pomegranate slushees also were available at Florida-based Steve’s Frozen Chillers, a company now invading the beaches of San Diego. In addition to the nearly 40 more or less traditional hot-weather flavors, it’s added a recognizable Orange Cremesicle flavor and all sorts cocktail-ready and coffee-based drinks.

Next door, at the Icee booth, the beverages were less impressive than the newly introduced delivery system: a four-barrel Viper countertop dispenser. Each of the barrels can be adjusted individually for carbonation specifications and it provides “the highest capacity in the industry.” It’s what I want for Christmas.

As for candy, nothing much has changed in that department, either. There are as many different tastes and textures of gummy worms, Swedish fish, M&Ms, jelly beans, sours and licorice as there are flavors at Steve’s Frozen Chillers. I’m a sucker for licorice, even the stuff that isn’t really authentic, but looks the part. Thus, among my annual stops has been the American Licorice Co. booth, where free samples of Red Vines generally are available. New this year is Natural Vines, red and black licorice confections made from all-natural ingredients and available in a re-sealable 8-ounce bag. It’s the perfect treat for candy snobs and those people who can afford to buy tickets for reserved seats in upscale theaters.

Until Barcalounger begins making theater seats, it’s difficult to imagine chairs getting more comfortable than they already are. To me, the ultimate improvements in 20th Century theater-furniture technology were cup holders, lift-able armrests and stereo speakers in the headrests. I was struck, then, when I walked past the Caddy Productions booth and saw what I thought was a TV tray attached to the armrest. (Imagine, TV dinners at the movies … what a concept!)

I was disabused of that notion by the company rep who pointed out what I should have known all along. To increase business during off-hours and on slow days, exhibitors increasingly are renting out their theaters – or individual auditoriums in a multiplex – to schools, organizations and businesses for seminars, meetings and multimedia presentations. The removable trays are sturdy enough to hold a laptop computer or a notepad and folders … and it retains the cup holder, to boot. Comfortable and functional, too … just what the doctor ordered.

Until Apple adds an armrest, cupholder and popper to its iPad and iPhone, I think I’ll keep watching my blockbusters, anyway, in a theater environment.

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2 Responses to “CinemaCon 2011: Who needs Home Premiere, when you can have hot dog sliders, gourmet licorice, ‘Puss and Boots’?”

  1. OscarFan says:

    Assayas’ “Carlos”

  2. Gary Dretzka says:

    Thanks for the catch. I had it right before tweaking/self-editing the column. Will fix.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon