CinemaCon 2022: Sony Showcases Spider-Verse, Bullet Train, and a New Marvel Hero as Exhibitors Focus on Reconnecting with Wider Audiences

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE (PART ONE).

Sony opened the studio presentations at CinemaCon 2022 with a victory lap. Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who energized the studio’s 2021 showcase to exhibitors by expressing a strong commitment to theatrical exclusivity, took the stage at Caesars Palace with the confidence of someone who’s been proven right. Sony has earned a whopping $3.3 billion in global box office since their last appearance in CinemaCon, only eight months back. 

That success has won the studio considerable goodwill from the exhibition community, even as the studio continues to offload select titles to streaming companies like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. The movies Sony does release under its own banner, however, do stick to longer exclusivity windows—one of the few studios to prioritize a longer runway for their films’ theatrical performance. 

The studio’s 2022 presentation began with an extended look at the upcoming comedy-action caper Bullet Train (July 29). CinemaCon delegates got to see around a reel’s worth of footage from the film, getting a better sense of the title’s comic sensibility and intricate action sequences from Deadpool 2 director David Leitch. The evening continued with looks at Where the Crawdads Sing (July 15) and The Woman King (September 16), original titles the studio believes will help balance the tentpole-heavy release schedule of the coming months.

Rothman acknowledged the industry’s lack of original films over the past year, committing to bringing more original and diverse stories to the screen in the coming years. That promise won’t be at the expense of their current tentpole strategy, however, as Sony also revealed for upcoming Marvel superhero titles. We only caught a glimpse of a Venom 3 title card at the presentation, but the studio did go into detail on plans to bring a new Marvel character to the big screen. Music artist Bad Bunny was brought on stage after being announced as the star of an upcoming film based on El Muerto, the first Latin American character to lead a Marvel live action movie. The film is scheduled for theatrical release on January 12, 2024.

The most rewarding part of the evening came when directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller came on stage to personally introduce around 15 minutes of advance footage of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (June 2, 2023), the first of two animated sequels coming to theaters in the years ahead. The footage screened was still in early stages of animation, but the CinemaCon crowd responded favorably to several new multiverse characters and comedy sequences from the film. The second sequel planned for release was given its official title at the event, Beyond the Spider-Verse, and will reach theaters on Easter weekend of 2024. 

Sony’s presentation closed with a surprise footage reveal of the upcoming George Foreman biopic, scheduled for April 7, 2023. The sports drama has real potential to connect with sports fans—Foreman’s life story is nothing short of cinematic—but there is an even wider base of faith-based viewers who could turn out for the film if Sony plays its cards right. 

Panel Sessions Emphasize Need to Reconnect with Lost Audiences

Day one of CinemaCon 2022 began with the return of International Day, a morning-long series of panels and presentations focused on theatrical exhibition outside of the North American market. Cinépolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez Magaña launched the event by delivering a keynote address on the pace of recovery overseas, providing a glimpse of the devastating impact the pandemic continues to have on emerging markets. The Latin American region had generated between $2.7 and $3.4 billion per year in the period between 2017 and 2019. The pandemic slashed those figures significantly; Latin America has been unable to cross $1 billion in annual box office since 2020. That struggle is attributable to market-specific closures and policies from local governments. Cinemas in Chile and Peru, for example, remained closed for 16 and 18 months respectively. 

Box office figures from Europe reveal a speedier recovery for the region. Laura Houlgatte, CEO of UNIC, the European cinema trade body, detailed the progress made by the region’s movie theaters since reopening from the pandemic. Strong results from studio tentpoles lifted key markets in Q3 and Q4 of 2021. Individual markets turned to local titles to complement the array of blockbusters on the schedule, providing much needed stability whenever Hollywood couldn’t supply films to theaters. That trend has introduced unease across the sector, a dependency on expensive studio films that puts as much pressure on distributors than it does exhibitors.

“In a world where there are fewer movies, our movies have to work on a global basis,” said Andrew Cripps, president of international distribution at Warner Bros., during an international day panel session. Additional panels on programming and marketing beyond tentpoles further addressed the matter, with a session entirely dedicated to e-sports and gaming in cinemas echoing similar observations made in a diverse programming panel earlier in the day. 

Reaching audiences who have been hesitant to return to the cinema was a consistent theme throughout the day. Older moviegoers in particular have often been cited as a difficult demographic to reach since cinemas reopened. Sarah Lewthwaite, chief client officer at Movio, a moviegoing data analytics firm, noted that the conversation around re-engaging audiences shouldn’t be based on demographics, but prior consumer behavior. “The data we’re seeing tells  us that someone’s past frequency [as a moviegoer] is a better indicator on their speed to return to the cinema than their demographic. If you are 50-plus and were a frequent moviegoer, you’ve already come back to the movies.”

Theatrically exclusivity was another big topic throughout the morning’s sessions, particularly in relation to preventing piracy stemming from day-and-date releases on US streaming platforms. Studios’ gold rush to capture market share in the US streaming market has come at the expense of international box office when it comes to day-and-date titles, according to Cinépolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez Magaña. “The day and date model is a recipe for piracy consumption and lost income, both for distributors and exhibitors alike,” said the executive during his keynote address. “The main beneficiaries from a day-and-date release model are the pirates who are given access to a pristine copy of a movie in virtually every language on day one.”

Data collected by piracy tracking site TorrentFreak reveals that the most pirated films of 2021 were all day-and-date titles. The longer a film’s exclusivity window, the longer it took for a pristine digital copy to rank among the top pirated titles of a given week. Warner Bros.’ Andrew Cripps emphasized that point, remarking that Dune’s day-and-date release on HBOMax was a factor in having the title open in Europe 5 weeks ahead of its domestic release. Cripps was joined by Dune director Denis Villeneuve (dialing in from Budapest, where he is in production on Dune II) in a conversation that touched on the challenges of international distribution in the post-pandemic market. Using Dune as an example, Cripps cited Villeneuve’s insistence on promoting the film as a theatrical experience despite the title’s day-and-date streaming release, a marketing campaign that helped the film earn 38 percent of its domestic box office in premium large format (PLF) screens that command higher ticket prices. 

Villeneuve isn’t known to mince words when it comes to his support of the theatrical experience. The director spoke about his desire to work more closely with exhibitors in the future in ensuring his films receive a theatrical release. “I’m worried about the theatrical window getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that the theatrical window should be as long as possible. [With a longer window,] the audience will feel that [the theatrical] experience is something precious, that it is something unique, that it is something that they cannot access soon on TV,  that is something that if—he wants to be part of the conversation, of the zeitgeist—then he has to experience it in a theater.” 

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