Thursday, May 23, 2024

CinemaCon 2024 Recap: Universal Pictures & Focus Features

Before Universal’s CinemaCon presentation even started, the whole room was buzzing about one title: “Wicked.” Everyone in attendance received a special lanyard set to light up as a part of a light show for the big musical, along with light-up flowers at every seat. Costumes and props from the film could be found in the lobby for attendees to see up close. Universal sent a crystal-clear message: This is the year of “Wicked.”

But, of course, they saved “Wicked” for last. Before looking to the future, Universal started with a look at their past. A sizzle reel highlighted classic Universal films over the years, including “Jaws,” “Gladiator,” “Get Out,” “The Big Lebowski,” and so much more. Universal Domestic Distribution Chief Jim Orr came out to celebrate their phenomenal 2023. It wasn’t just a victory lap for “Oppenheimer’s” Best Picture win, though they certainly did celebrate that. More importantly, Orr noted that, for the first time in 22 years, the top three highest-grossing movies of the year weren’t sequels. This was the theme of his strong opening presentation: originality. “Last year, we not only released more films to theaters than any other studio, but we also launched original hits,” Orr said. He added, in regards to Universal’s lineup for 2024, “Our slate is by far the most diverse. More than 75% of our films are original.” This commitment to originality seemed to strike a chord with the audience of movie theater owners and exhibitors, who know the need for various stories in their theaters, not just rehashes of franchises. That’s not to say that Universal’s presentation wasn’t heavy on franchises and IP; it certainly was.

Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri took the stage first to highlight everything the animation studio has in store. He teased a new “Super Mario Bros Movie” coming to theaters in 2026 before turning his eyes to the studio’s cash cow: Minions. For this summer’s “Despicable Me 4,” Meledandri announced that Pharrell Williams would return to write original songs, as the collaboration produced an Oscar nomination for the mega-hit “Happy.” Meledandri also presented an extended clip from the movie, in which Gru (Steve Carrell) and the new character Poppy (Joey King) execute a heist on a mysterious castle owned by a supervillain. It’s adorable, as one might expect. Will the minions turn “Despicable Me 4” into another hit? We’ll find out when it lands in theaters on July 3rd.

Next up was director Lee Isaac Chung to talk about his legacy sequel “Twisters.” “You might be wondering why I decided to direct a film like this,” Chung explained. “It was honestly the scariest thing I thought I could do, just like facing a giant tornado.” He spoke about his love of the original “Twister,” and how, working with producer Steven Spielberg, they strove to make the film as real and immersive as possible, creating a big-screen spectacle. He says they even sent real storm chasers out to gather footage of big storms to make the film more believable. That theme continued as stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell, and Anthony Ramos took the stage. The cast spoke about shooting entirely on-location with wind machines pounding them in the real world. The extended trailer contains insane, thrilling imagery, including Powell’s character shooting fireworks into a tornado. What’s not to like? This looks to be a major hit for Universal this July.

Orr retook the stage and turned the audience toward Universal’s legacy of horror. He officially announced what we already assumed: A sequel to “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will land in theaters in 2025, as will “M3GAN 2.” While Leigh Whannell’s “Wolf Man” is still filming, they cut a quick teaser together. It looks very much in line with Whannell’s “The Invisible Man,” which maintains a grounded, human look at these classic monsters. We didn’t get to see the Wolf Man himself, but we did see star Christopher Abbott get a wound and begin to transform into a horrible creature. Keeping the horror theme going, Orr introduced James Watkins, director of the English-language remake of “Speak No Evil,” to debut the film’s trailer, which was released online shortly after the presentation.

Shifting gears, Focus Features Chairman Peter Kujawski came out to talk about the appetite for “elevated storytelling,” as evidenced by the box office success of “Asteroid City” and “The Holdovers” last year. First, he introduced two trailers we’ve already seen: “Back to Black,” the Amy Winehouse biopic, and Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders.” Then, it was time for two new features. Edward Berger, who directed the Oscar-winning “All Quiet on the Western Front,” helms “Conclave.” This twisty drama follows Ralph Fiennes as a Cardinal in charge of the process of selecting the new pope, who discovers an ominous secret. This looks like a legitimate awards contender, with gorgeous imagery and a stellar cast. It’s likely to make a run at the festivals before hitting theaters on November 1st.

Finally, Focus debuted the first trailer for Robert Eggers’ “Nosferatu.” The breathtaking cinematography, full of disturbing images, makes it impossible to look away. We see a great deal of the cast – including Lily-Rose Depp, Nicholas Hoult, and Willem Dafoe – but the trailer does a beautiful job of keeping the Vampyr himself in the shadows, not letting us get a glimpse just yet. Hopefully, they keep it that way, saving the monster for a beautiful reveal in the movie. Kujawski promised “a different sort of Christmas feast” when the film debuts this holiday season.

Director Chris Sanders and star Lupita Nyong’o took the stage to showcase their intriguing animated film, “The Wild Robot.” Based on the wildly popular kids’ books, this movie follows a robot built for city life who gets lost in the wilderness, becoming a part of nature. Sanders talked about taking inspiration from the landscapes of Miyazaki films, the animals of early Disney movies, and Monet’s paintings for the visual style of “The Wild Robot.” And those inspirations truly paid off, at least judging by the extended footage they provided. Even with some unfinished shots, the animation is spectacular. This is an early favorite for winning Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars.

Last but not least, Universal turned its eyes to Oz. The lights across the room glowed pink and green in sync with the music of “Wicked” before a video of the Wizard appeared on screen, greeting “CinemaConians” to the magical land. The man behind the curtain himself then took the stage. Jeff Goldblum appeared, talking about how thrilling it was to participate in this “particular brand of magic” for the first time in his career. Next, director Jon M. Chu and producer Marc Platt arrived to discuss their deep love for this story. After reading the book, Platt says that he initially conceived “Wicked” as a movie until Stephen Schwartz convinced him to take it to Broadway. Chu remembered seeing “Wicked” in 2003 when it was still being workshopped before its Broadway debut.

Following that, Jonathan Bailey and Michelle Yeoh hit the stage, where Yeoh joked with Chu about always casting her in stern roles. Both of them and Goldblum celebrated the practical sets that made the whole land of Oz feel real and lived-in. Finally, Chu and Platt were emotional talking about casting Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo to star in the movie. “It was a long journey,” they said, to cast exactly the right people in these roles, and they know these two are perfect. Their new Elphaba and Glinda – Erivo and Grande, respectively – came out next, decked in green and pink, and gushed over each other and the film. They, too, were emotional. The cast and crew clearly grew a deep bond when making the film.

They introduced an extended new peek at the movie. With an opening set to “Popular,” this showcased much more of the film’s practical sets. This felt more grounded and tangible than the earlier trailer. Many had complained about the over-abundance of CGI in the first trailer, and while there’s still loads of it here, the world felt more believable this time around. The first of the two parts of “Wicked” comes out on November 27th.

Universal’s strong presentation follows up a solid 2023. The posture of the executives seemed forward-thinking, looking at both original stories and franchises. Chairman of NBC Universal Studio Group Donna Langley explained that their goal is to “work with the best to make the very best for every kind of audience member.” By putting more movies in theaters, they’re experimenting more, leaving ample room for success. There’s much to look forward to from Universal and Focus Features this year.

What was your favorite piece of news from the Universal and Focus Features panel at CinemaCon this year? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account.

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howat
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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