Sony boss Tom Rothman has almost certainly been the highlight of every CinemaCon presentation I’ve ever seen him involved in, and this year was no exception, telling the crowd that his studio was “not fucking around” before introducing his piece de resistance — the first footage from Ridley Scott‘s historical epic Napoleon starring Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Isn’t that an Apple movie?” Well, yes, it is, but the streaming service has partnered with Sony for what the latter is calling a “robust theatrical window” with a full-throttle marketing campaign,” and the film is sure to be the studio’s prime awards contender… even if it’s sharing the film with Apple. Thus, Rothman won’t get credit for making the film, but he will get credit — if it’s a success — for landing the theatrical rights over his studio rivals.
After noting that it will release 23 movies in theaters this calendar year (following a successful 2022 campaign that included modest hits The Woman King, Where the Crawdads Sing, and A Man Called Otto), Sony kicked things off by reminding theater owners that the stars of the biggest movie of 2020 — Bad Boys for Life — are coming back for one more ride, as both Will Smith and Martin Lawrence appeared via video to welcome everyone back to Las Vegas. At first, they said they were “sorry we couldn’t be there,” only to reverse course and say “we’re glad we’re not there because they’re paying us a lot to be here.”
If the routine sounds a little dumb, that’s because it kind of was, but hey, Smith has to get back into theater owners’ good graces again in the wake of The Slap, though they’re probably relieved that they weren’t left holding the bag with Emancipation, which sank like a stone following its debut on Apple TV+. Bad Boys 4, which I hear will feature some hungry gators in its climactic third act, is currently in its fourth week of shooting, and the sequel has not yet been assigned a release date.
Speaking of “dumb,” Sony introduced Dumb Money, which contrary to its title, looked anything but, as it follows a bunch of smart folks who made a killing on the GameStop craze that razzled Wall Street. Paul Dano stars as Keith Gill, aka YouTube’s Roaring Kitty, aka Reddit’s DeepFucking, who turned a $53,000 investment into a $50 million fortune. Dano is surrounded by an all-star cast that includes Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin (net worth: $400 million), Vincent D’Onofrio as Steve Cohen, Nick Offerman as Ken Griffin (net worth: $29 billion), Sebastian Stan, Pete Davidson, Anthony Ramos, Dane DeHaan, Marc Rebillet, America Ferrara, and Shailene Woodley as Dano’s wife.
We were treated to the first few minutes of the film, which basically find a bunch of characters delivering some variant on the line “oh shit!” as the GameStop stock roars to life. It basically feels like The Big Short for millennials, and with a savvy marketing campaign from Josh Greenstein, the so-called “bad boy of Sony,” this one could be a hit… and maybe even a stealth awards contender judging by director Craig Gillespie‘s track record.
From there, Greenstein opened The Red Door, the latest movie in the lucrative Insidious franchise, which has grossed more than $500 million worldwide. Greenstein said he thinks that Insidious: The Red Door will be the most successful entry in the franchise based on the fact that the original cast is back, and the film is actually scary, but I don’t know… I bailed on this franchise after the first film as the entire concept of The Further never did it for me, and by now, the whole thing seems kinda washed, but I suppose this could turn a modest profit since it was likely made for a price.
Sony gave CinemaCon patrons a little whiplash, moving from supernatural horror to comedy, as Bert Kreischer appeared on screen dressed as the Little Mermaid, complete with a red wig, to hype his new movie The Machine. I’m very curious how this film performs, as Kreischer is a very successful standup comic who has a big, loyal fanbase, though his shtick isn’t really for me, nor do I really know anyone it’s for. Middle America seems to be his target audience. The question now is, will they show up to support his first (only?) leading man vehicle? Sony (and Legendary) believes there’s gold in them hills, so if his audience turns up on opening weekend, this could actually be a nice single or double for the studio.
After that, it was time for some Marvel mishegas, as Sony Animation’s Kristine Belson brought out Kemp Powers, co-director of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, to introduce the first 14 minutes of the animated sequel. Trailers and short clips are one thing (well, two, actually), but I’ve never understood why studios insist on showing huge chunks of their movies at CinemaCon, so I put on my headphones during that footage so that when I actually see the film come June, I won’t be sitting there thinking, “I’ve already seen this scene and the next three… I’m bored.”
That said, it was cool to see Spider-Verse stars Shameik Moore (Miles Morales), Hailee Steinfeld (Gwen Stacy), and Issa Rae (Jessica Drew) take the stage, where Rae explained that her character isn’t living a double life — this is it for her. Meanwhile, Miles has learned that while anyone can wear the mask and be a hero, it’s how you wear the mask that counts.
The Across the Spider-Verse footage turned out to be a mere appetizer, however, as just moments later, Sony’s Sanford Panitch introduced Kraven the Hunter star Aaron Taylor-Johnson via video, who then proceeded to drop the biggest news nugget of the panel — the Marvel movie is going to be rated R!
The trailer very much lived up to that rating as well, as it features Kraven biting a man’s nose off and killing another with a javelin spear, while a third gets his face caught in some kind of medieval hunting contraption. This looks very violent, and like a very good warm-up — potentially — for a James Bond movie, should Taylor-Johnson land that part as widely rumored.
The Kraven trailer features Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Ariana DeBose, who play Kraven’s father and Calypso, respectively, plays The White Lotus star Fred Hechinger, who plays Chameleon. The trailer ends with the line “Don’t you want to know why they call me The Rhino,” and dear reader, the voice sounded an awful lot like Alessandro Nivola‘s — who is confirmed to be part of the cast, though his role has been kept under wraps… until now. The tagline, by the way, is “No One Survives the Hunt.”
While Sony showed off a generous portion of its Spider-Verse sequel and the Kraven trailer played quite well in the room, the studio stayed mum on Tom Holland‘s rumored deal for Spider-Man 4 and didn’t provide any updates on Bad Bunny‘s Marvel movie El Muerto, which it hyped up at last year’s confab. But perhaps most surprising was that it didn’t bring a lick of footage from Madame Web starring Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney, though it remains early days there, and that film may be better served by having a presence at Comic-Con this summer.
Sweeney was on hand, however, to promote her rom-com Anybody But You, which she’s been busy filming with Top Gun: Maverick hunk Glen Powell. For weeks, set photos from this movie have been all over the internet, which loves when two ridiculously attractive people make a movie together. I mean, Ticket to Paradise… hello? These two had natural chemistry on stage together, and Greenstein seems to know what he’s got, as the trailer opens with a shot of them in bed together — Sweeney nude, her heaving breasts resting on Powell’s chiseled torso. By the end of the trailer, Powell has disrobed as well and is dancing around pantsless. Greenstein isn’t stupid. He knows that sex sells, and few young actors have the kind of sex appeal that these two do.
As for the story? I have no idea what it is. I have no idea what the hook is here, on a script level… if there even is one.
One movie that does have a hook, and a pretty cool one at that, was Gran Turismo, which probably wins Monday’s award for “Movie You Thought Was Going to Suck But Actually Looks Kind of Cool.” Basically, Orlando Bloom plays a marketing exec for a popular racing video game, and invites the world’s best players to test their racing skills on an actual racetrack in a real racecar — under the guidance of a stern coach played by David Harbour. Its wish fulfillment angle kind of reminded me of Real Steel, which was a modest hit back in the day, and it’s very much aimed at gamers, which proved to be a smart strategy for Universal and Illumination with their Super Mario Bros. Movie. I doubt Sony broke the bank with the budget here, and yet it looks expensive, so here’s hoping this is a return to form for District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. This actually looked pretty fun, especially for a late-summer release in the dog days of August.
But jumping back to the issue of sex appeal, Sony has convinced Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence to put hers to the test in the raunchy comedy No Hard Feelings, and while her bag girl works to some extent, that’s not why audiences fell in love with Lawrence. She was never the blonde bombshell, she was the girl next door, and this movie feels like it may have made a crucial miscalculation in that department. Sony made Lawrence and director Gene Stupnitsky struggle through some forced banter before the duo offered up some new footage, including an extended look at the “mace” scene glimpsed in the film’s trailer, and while it drew some laughs in the room, it also felt like a comedy from the mid-2000s.
Sony also showed off a pair of sequels in Vegas, as Paul Rudd and Jason Reitman introduced a follow-up to Ghostbusters: Afterlife that will take the beloved franchise back to New York City. Ghostbusters is an important IP for Sony, and with Rudd ready to wield the proton pack again, the studio likely felt compelled to go back to the well — or the firehouse, in this case — one more time.
Speaking of “time,” Sony wisely went right back to the “time” gimmick for the Equalizer 3 trailer — this time around, someone is holding a gun on Denzel Washington and he gives them 9 seconds to make a better decision before he makes it for them. The action looks hardcore — at one point, Washington uses the barrel of a gun to stab through a man’s eye socket. The selling point here is both the reunion of Washington and Dakota Fanning nearly 20 years after they first worked together in Man on Fire, and the invitation to “witness the final chapter.” It sure would be nice if Denzel finally met his “equal” and squared off against a worthy opponent in this sequel.
Before leaving the stage, The Equalizer 3 director Antoine Fuqua presented Washington with CinemaCon’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday night, and following an impressive highlight reel, Washington expressed his gratitude to theater owners for allowing him to do what he does. Rothman also took exception to the idea that there are no movie stars anymore, or that the remaining movie stars don’t matter anymore. “I really hope all my competitors believe that shit,” he said, calling Washington “a preternatural, enduring, iconic talent.”
Sony ended its presentation with that first look at Napoleon, and it certainly looks epic. Phoenix plays the master military strategist, and he leads his enemy onto a snow-covered battlefield made of ice, only to unleash a parade of cannonballs upon them. The ice breaks and hundreds of soldiers and horses fall into the freezing water. There’s no question that Scott is working on a huge scale here, but it’s tough to distinguish the soldiers from one another, and the large armies felt very CGI to me, though perhaps my trained eye is being too cynical. I was surprised and somewhat relieved to hear that Phoenix decided against using a French accent, though it makes the whole endeavor a little less believable. That said, the last time he and Scott worked together, Gladiator won Best Picture, and as Rothman noted, it is a little crazy that Scott has never won the Oscar for Best Director.
Overall, Sony didn’t really blow me away or anything, but it also didn’t have any movies that made me wonder, “Who is this for?” The Kraven the Hunter trailer and the Napoleon footage are what people were left talking about. They’re cranking out movies for boys, from The Machine or Gran Turismo to Dumb Money, with only the Glen Powell-Sydney Sweeney movie really aimed at a female audience, given that No Hard Feelings is wish fulfillment for nerds with no chance of getting within 10 yards of J-Law.
Other than that, there were a few other projects that we likely could’ve seen some footage from, but that Sony wisely kept under wraps, as the titles feel a little like they’re from a bygone era. I’m talking about the Garfield movie starring Chris Pratt, a Masters of the Universe movie starring Kyle Allen, the acquisition title The Crow starring Bill Skarsgard, and Here, which is the latest movie pairing from Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, whose track of late hasn’t been great. The studio knew what to bring and what not to bring, and I can’t fault Sony for playing to its own strengths.
Presentation Grade: B