CinemaCon 2022: Top Gun: Maverick Thrills Theater Owners, Lionsgate Announces New Hunger Games Movie

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Credit: Scott Garfield. © 2019 Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved.

There was an effusive mood at Caesars Palace on Thursday as the 2022 edition of CinemaCon came to a close. The event served as a celebration of the moviegoing experience and reinvigorated the industry after two years of an existential fight for the survival of movie theaters around the world. CinemaCon 2020 was canceled weeks before it was scheduled to take place because of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a matter of days, nearly every movie theater in the world shuttered its doors without knowing when—or if—they would ever open again. Some never did, and those that have reopened came back to an unprecedented challenge: reintroducing moviegoing to the global public.

CinemaCon 2022 was defined by how the industry plans to address that challenge. Cutting-edge cinema technology demonstrations, studio slate presentations, and panels sharing best practices in programming, food & beverage strategies, and operations dominated the week’s proceedings. But the undisputed highlight for many of this year’s delegates didn’t come until Thursday when Paramount held the world premiere screening of Top Gun: Maverick. The screening was preceded by first looks at Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (Christmas 2022) and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (July 14, 2023). Footage from both films was positively received by the exhibitor audience, warming up the crowd before the auditorium lights went down and the film got underway. 

Exhibitors we spoke to following the Top Gun: Maverick screening were effusively enthusiastic, a rarity at an event where exhibitors approach new films with a fair amount of skepticism. “This is why we build movie theaters,” shared George Rouman, owner and operator of Rouman Cinema, a six-screen theater in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, as he was exiting the screening. Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, who oversees more than 130 screens across 15 locations in the midwest, called Top Gun: Maverick, “exactly the type of movie exhibition needs right now.” When asked if the film, which underwent five release delays since originally being announced for July 2019, was worth the wait, Johnson replied, “absolutely, it’s coming at a perfect time—just as we launch the summer movie season with a full slate of big titles to follow. If it had come out any earlier, we wouldn’t have enough movies available to us to sustain the momentum we expect Top Gun: Maverick to have in the market.”

Expectations for the film were already high coming into the event. Top Gun: Maverick was voted as the most anticipated movie of the year by exhibitors in our 2022 Boxoffice Barometer readers’ poll. By all indications, it seems as if those expectations were surpassed by the conclusion of the film’s world premiere at CinemaCon. The screening capped off a busy week with an excitement that was largely absent in the 2021 edition of the event. The prior edition of CinemaCon was rescheduled to August 2021, held amid international travel restrictions and the surge of the Delta Covid-19 variant. Attendance was down as a result in a show that emphasized resilience and perseverance but provided few concrete answers on the industry’s future.

“August was about survival and getting together,” admits John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. At the time, movie theaters were still waiting for a consistent slate of studio releases to market to their audience. The major films released in that period, like Disney’s Black Widow, were simultaneously available on streaming platforms. There was no indication that theatrical could return to pre-pandemic box office figures, no film the industry could point to and claim there was still potential for recovery. 

All that changed in the eight months between the conclusion of CinemaCon 2021 and this year’s event. A string of theatrically-exclusive box office hits in Q3 led up to the blockbuster release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in December. Sony’s superhero sequel, released during the surge of the Omicron variant, became the third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time and sixth-highest worldwide. It was a crucial milestone in the recovery—proof that theatrical could thrive beyond the pandemic—but its impact on the industry was diluted by a lack of films that could build on that progress. Studios largely abandoned their Q1 2022 dates despite the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Paramount, however, didn’t waver. Brian Robbins, president and CEO of Paramount Pictures, proudly reminded exhibitors at CinemaCon 2022 that the studio kept films like Scream (2022), Jackass Forever, The Lost City, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the calendar while rivals reshuffled their release schedules. That confidence in theatrical “paid off for us, and paid off for [exhibitors].”

Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution, built on those comments by calling on exhibition to sustain the momentum of the last weeks and refocus efforts to win back more moviegoers. “We’re not completely back yet and now is not the time for complacency,” he said. “It’s not the time for ‘If we just have movies, everything is going to be okay,’ exhibition has to ensure that every facet of the guest experience is the absolute best that it can be. And [studios] have to ensure that we’re delivering content that moviegoers want to see in your theaters. We must work together in every way possible, the way partnerships are supposed to work—sharing data, not selling it—to help us market our movies to your patrons. Playing the right number of trailers and not numbing the audience to the point that the recall rate drops to nil. Ensuring that the price-value ratio is fair and proper. We need to look at our business from different perspectives and experiment in finding ways to increase attendance and revenue.”

Lionsgate followed Paramount’s presentation later in the afternoon for the final studio showcase of CinemaCon 2022. Sebastian Maniscalco, star of Lionsgate’s upcoming comedy About My Father, hosted the event and introduced clips from a diverse range of titles. Lionsgate revealed never before seen footage of a slate that balances original films like coming-of-age comedy Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and horror flick The Devil’s Light with established action franchises like John Wick Chapter 4 and The Expendables 4. The studio is also building spin-off series based on successful films. The drama White Bird will act as a sort of spiritual prequel to Lionsgate’s 2017 hit Wonder, while Ballerina will give star Anna de Armas her own series in the John Wick universe. 

Lionsgate closed its presentation by showcasing clips of titles currently in development. The CinemaCon audience caught their first glimpse of the video game adaptation Borderlands and a new Dirty Dancing movie heralding the return of original star Jeniffer Grey. The big news from the Lionsgate showcase came in the final moments of the presentation with the announcement of a new Hunger Games prequel dated for November 17, 2023. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could provide a return to major global grosses for Lionsgate, which has played a larger role with mid-range titles since the Hunger Games series concluded in 2015.

Joe Drake, chairman of Lionsgate’s motion picture group, closed the presentation by stating his studio’s ambitions clearly to the exhibitors in attendance. Drake’s vision for Lionsgate is a studio that can provide exhibition with a diverse slate of titles where “every movie can be an event for somebody…movies for people who want to discover what they love rather than being told what they like.”

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