With all due respect to the great Christopher Nolan, Vin Diesel was the highlight of Universal’s best-in-show presentation at CinemaCon on Wednesday afternoon, going off-prompter to deliver an impassioned plea to theater owners about the power and the magic of movies.
I know Saturday Night Live already spoofed Diesel’s love of the moving image, but if AMC ever gets tired of Nicole Kidman, they know who to call. He had the entire press section howling with laughter while he introduced Fast X as if it were Schindler’s List, and I suspect he knew it, too.
“I should be reading the teleprompter… you guys don’t give a shit about the teleprompter,” ad-libbed Diesel in a speech that made me wonder if he did birthday parties, not that I could afford him. But seriously, if the Fast franchise ever rides on without him, he could make a killing by giving motivational speeches on Cameo. If I was an enterprising Universal executive, I’d release Diesel’s CinemaCon speech on VOD and charge people $5 bucks a pop to watch it. It may be the highlight of all future CinemaCons to come, and I swear I mean that as a compliment rather than in any derogatory fashion.
It’s kind of hilarious that Diesel insisted on doing his own thing separate from co-stars Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Jordanna Brewster, and Sung Kang, who were saddled with delivering a wordy Fast & Furious history lesson that — trust me — absolutely no one needed. A linear sizzle reel of the franchise probably would’ve done the trick and left talent a little less vulnerable, as the foursome were left stumbling over their lines.
Thankfully, everyone will get a chance to run it back next year, as Diesel announced that Fast X Part 2 is coming in 2025, so fuel up the tank, baby! By the way, it looks like Fast X is going to be a full meal of a movie, and in addition to an epic brawl between Rodriguez and Charlize Theron, I’m looking forward to seeing Jason Momoa‘s charismatic villain, as the Aquaman star looks like he’s enjoying himself much more here.
Wow… 350 words and we’ve only talked about one part of the presentation. Sorry, folks! I guess I’m the wordy one.
Anyway, leaving aside the high entertainment of Diesel’s speech, I’ll tell you what most impressed me from Universal — Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which looks like it might just be the movie that delivers him an Oscar for Best Director. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but it looks absolutely amazing. The cast is fantastic, I loved what we heard from the score, and it’s nice to see Nolan put aside the sci-fi stuff to focus on real science for a change.
After a radiant-looking Donna Langley took a well-deserved victory lap for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is on pace to cross the billion-dollar mark worldwide this week, she introduced Nolan, who took the stage to loud applause from theater owners — no surprise, given that the Tenet filmmaker never turned his back on them during the pandemic.
Nolan said that he knows of no more dramatic tale with higher stakes than that of Robert J. Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, noting that scientists worried they were going to blow a hole in the atmosphere that could bring about the end of the world. True story.
Nolan said his goal is to put audiences into the mind and shoes of Oppenheimer, who was in the middle of some of the most important decisions and moments in modern history. His story “offers no easy answers,” said Nolan, who was interested in the fascinating paradoxes that the story presented. You can expect a new trailer to play in front of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 next week.
The middle of Universal’s presentation featured a tribute to Illumination, which has been around for a decade now. The company put together a fun “thank you” video to theater owners featuring its marquee characters from the Despicable Me, Minions, Sing, and Secret Lives of Pets franchises, as well as the Grinch.
Illumination boss Chris Meledandri then took the stage to introduce Migration, a cute family film about some ducks who fly their own way, heading to New York instead of Florida. Kumail Nanjiani voices an overprotective father who is scared to leave the safety of the pond he’s always called home, while Elizabeth Banks voices his wife, who wants to experience the wonders of the world with their family, which includes Danny DeVito as the voice of the family patriarch.
Migration certainly skews young… unlike another movie about talking animals, Strays, which is a raunchy R-rated comedy that finds Will Ferrell voicing an abandoned dog who sets out to get gnarly revenge on his neglectful former human. Ferrell showed up with the actual dog he voices, Sophie (who plays a male dog named Reggie), and the studio wrote some great banter for him based on the Coliseum’s camera operator, whose focus keeps drifting back to the dog even though Sophie poops on a sidewalk and Ferrell has won multiple Emmys.
‘While my career will go on for a long time, this is probably the peak of yours… By the time Strays 3 comes out, we may have to recast you with a younger dog,’ joked Ferrell. By the way, the latest trailer for Strays ends with a great Dennis Quaid gag in which the actor plays himself.
From there, it was time for Jason Blum to take a bow, as Blumhouse announced a M3GAN sequel that Universal will release on Jan. 17, 2025. Blum hopes it will be an ongoing franchise — just think, that pint-sized android could have many different facial skins — and he also hinted that a Black Phone sequel is in the works. That was confirmed toward the end of the presentation by Langley herself, who added that the studio is also developing sequels to Violent Night and the hit animated film The Bad Guys. Can a Cocaine Bear sequel really be far behind?
But back to Blumhouse. Its principal brought out his trusted director David Gordon Green, who then introduced the first trailer for The Exorcist: Believer, a legacy sequel that brings back Ellen Burstyn (and Linda Blair, as Above the Line first reported). I had a mixed reaction to the trailer. I liked the idea of two girls being possessed at the same time, but there’s a weird editing choice in the middle of the trailer that was something I’d typically see from a cheaper film of lesser quality, so I feel there’s room for improvement here. They didn’t quite nail it down, though in following up the trailer, DreamWorks Animation’s Margie Cohn nailed her punchline.
As soon as it ended, she came onstage and said, “What do you think, should we make an animated version? We could call it How to Train Your Demon,” which, by the way, sounds like the title of a movie I’d actually go see. Cohn was on hand to show off the trailer for Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, which finds the titular teen going up against a band of evil mermaids. This movie should do modest business with young girls, but it won’t come close to the tally of…
Kung Fu Panda 4, which is on the way, naturally. Cohn introduced Jack Black, who came out to the sounds of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” even hitting the high note despite the white in his beard. There was no footage available, so Black proceeded to offer up a not-entirely-kid-friendly summary of the whole movie, which finds Po squaring off against a villain known as the Chameleon who can conjure other villains at will.
There was also a clip or trailer from Trolls: Band Together, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it as I was too busy typing up my notes for this story to look up and watch. Stars Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake were on hand though, and I’m sure theater owners were delighted to see them, as theaters need more animated movies for kids, and they lost the last Trolls movie when it went straight-to-streaming in lieu of the pandemic.
From there, Focus Features chairman Peter “Kujo” Kujawski took the stage (he was the only exec brave enough to immediately follow Jack Black) to espouse the importance of options, as audiences crave and demand “specialty” titles in addition to blockbusters.
To that end, Focus brought a slew of trailers, with the highlight in my book being Alexander Payne‘s The Holdovers. Focus cut a throwback trailer for that film that reminded me of a cross between Rushmore and The Breakfast Club, and I thought it looked both funny and quite heartfelt, with the kind of central performance from Paul Giamatti that could land a Golden Globe nomination, just as he did for Payne’s Sideways.
Speaking of Rushmore, we also saw a new trailer for Wes Anderson‘s Asteroid City that I personally liked much more than the first trailer. Focus’ distribution president Lisa Bunnell called Anderson’s films “the Marvel of specialty movies.”
We also caught a charming look at My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 (I totally forgot there was a Part 2) and the trailer for Ethan Coen‘s new comedy Drive-Away Dolls, which very much appears to be operating in the spirit of the Coen brothers, and features a fantastic cast, with Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan joined by Beanie Feldstein, supreme character actor Bill Camp, and some guy named Matt Damon.
Before wrapping things up, Universal dropped a couple of surprises that got tongues wagging before everyone walked out the door. The studio tapped its 87North partners David Leitch and Kelly McCormick to do a modest stunt show for the crowd to promote The Fall Guy. The mini-stage show included motorcycles, controlled falls, and stunt performers doing flips and fighting onstage. The whole thing went over very well, as it was just nice to see a studio try something different. You kind of have to these days in order to cut through the noise — which The Fall Guy most certainly did.
Stars Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt were on hand to introduce an extended trailer for the film, which doesn’t even come out until next summer. Gosling plays a stuntman who gets called in to work on an expensive space opera that his ex (Blunt) is directing. When the film’s lead actor (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) goes missing, she’s forced to work with her stuntman ex to save her film.
The film looks like a fun summer blockbuster that’s very much cut from the same cloth as Bullet Train, which shouldn’t be any surprise seeing as the two films share a director in Leitch. there’s lots of action, plenty of flirtatious romance, and they let Hannah Waddingham do her best Natasha Lyonne, which is as cool as it sounds.
Finally, Universal ended its presentation with a behind-the-scenes look at Wicked, which drew a rousing response from the crowd. Universal clearly spared no expense, as it looks hugely expensive, and frankly, it was just nice to see a studio hype up its 2024 slate, as it’s the super-early looks that most excite this audience of insiders. Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande both look well-cast, and I’m looking forward to seeing Jeff Goldblum as the Wizard of Oz, not to mention the flying monkeys, even if they’ve always been a little scary to me.
And it wasn’t just The Fall Guy and Wicked that Universal is high on with regard to its future. In addition to its new relationship with Nolan, which it hopes to continue to build upon, the studio’s welcome video nearly climaxed with Everything Everywhere All at Once filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who signed a deal with Universal last year well in advance of their multiple Oscar wins.
Overall, this was a very strong presentation featuring high-profile titles in multiple genres. There were no 20-minute clips that made me put my headphones on. No overlong sit-down Q&A’s with talent a la Warner Bros. Plus, the studio made some news and showed off some 2024 titles. Diesel and The Fall Guy segment would’ve been enough on their own, but to be completely honest, that Oppenheimer footage is the best thing I’ve seen so far this week, ensuring that Universal’s presentation was, in fact — and please pardon the pun — the bomb.