CinemaCon 2022: Disney and Universal Tout Tentpoles, Avatar Aims to Revive 3D at the Movies

Director James Cameron behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Disney called in its best ambassador to theaters to open its 2022 CinemaCon presentation after sitting out the 2021 edition of the event. “I love movies, I love all of you, and I thank all of you for taking us through the dark days,” said Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige to exhibitors in attendance before introducing a 20-minute clip of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It proved to be a warm reception for Feige; Marvel titles have been a financial lifeline for the industry since cinemas reopened with titles like Black Widow, Shan-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Building on that success, Tony Chambers, Disney’s executive vice president of theatrical distribution told attendees he expects that film to be another box office hit, citing encouraging pre-sale figures ahead of the film’s May 6 release.

The CinemaCon audience also enjoyed a 30-minute look at Lightyear, the first Pixar title to hit theaters since Onward’s theatrical run was cut short by the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Disney turned the rest of the presentation over to its 20th Century Studios division, where audiences got a first look at footage of David O. Russell’s Amsterdam (November 4). The title promises to be a star studded big screen experience driven by leads Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington—with an eclectic ensemble cast that includes Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, and Taylor Swift among many others. Six minutes of The Bob’s Burgers Movie (May 27) also screened for the audience, emerging as a promising counter-programming option set to open alongside Top Gun: Maverick over Memorial Day weekend.

David O. Russell’s AMSTERDAM. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Producer Jon Landau came on stage to share Disney’s biggest announcement of the morning. Avatar 2, now titled Avatar: The Way of Water, will stick to its December 16 release date. A re-release of the original Avatar will hope to reconnect audiences with the franchise on September 23, with four planned sequels scheduled to follow Way of Water in the coming years. The film’s trailer is set to premiere exclusively in theaters ahead of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness next week. 

CinemaCon delegates were treated to a first look of footage of Avatar: The Way of Water—and it looks stunning. Shot in digital 3D with high dynamic range (HDR) and a high frame rate (HFR), the Avatar sequel is aiming to once again set a new benchmark for cinema technology. Judging from the footage, the film will be a treat for those seeing it at theaters with cutting-edge technology—but the global supply chain disruption may impact that availability. As a result, cinema operators looking to market Avatar: The Way of Water as a new benchmark of cinema presentation at their theaters may want to get an early start in determining their equipment needs. 

Expectations for Avatar: The Way of Water have been so high for so long that it no longer makes sense to forecast the film’s potential performance to its predecessor’s. The global exhibition industry has changed considerably since the original Avatar launched digital 3D back in 2009. Market share for 3D films at the global box office was already in decline before the pandemic, going down from 22% of the worldwide box office in 2016 to 15% in 2019. In the United States, the total number of digital 3D screens has decreased by 14% since 2018. Avatar: The Way of Water could easily be a big hit for theaters, but we’ll have to wait to see if it can revive the ailing digital 3D format in an era marked by the rise of competing Premium Large Format (PLF) concepts.

Universal’s presentation closed the day’s festivities on Wednesday with a jam packed showcase that clocked in at over 2 hours in length. The studio doubled-down on the presentation format they used at CinemaCon 2021, inviting local theater managers on stage to introduce footage alongside their films’ stars and directors. The studio’s roots in horror were well represented with footage from Jordan Peele’s Nope (July 22), David Gordon Green’s Halloween Ends (October 14), and the Blumhouse evil robot thriller M3gan (January 13, 2023). Highlights from the showcase also included enthusiastic responses from exhibitors for comedies Easter Sunday (August 5), Minions: The Rise of Gru (July 1), and Bros (September 30). Footage from those titles commanding laughs across the Caesars Palace auditorium. Universal’s presentation closed with legacy cast members of Jurassic World: Dominion introducing a trailer for the film ahead of its June 10 release. 

On the specialty side, Focus Features president Lisa Bunnell introduced footage from a number of upcoming titles. Focus will bring a diverse slate to theaters in 2022 that includes older-skewing movies like Downton Abbey: A New Era (May 18) and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (July 15), genre plays like action-comedy flick Violent Night (December 2), and dramas like James Gray’s Armageddon Time.

Earlier in the week, fellow specialty outfit Neon showcased footage from a trio of its own titles to complement the week’s tentpole-driven presentations. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (June 3) is sure to make audiences squirm as the legendary director returns to his roots in body horror, while a pair of documentaries—Sundance alum Fire of Love and David Bowie music doc Moonage Dream—should help exhibitors round out their programming in the months ahead.

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Director James Cameron behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios' AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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