CinemaCon: Universal Pictures Shows Off Footage From Its 2014 (and 2015!) Slate


It’s Day 2 of CinemaCon (or Day 1.5 since Monday wasn’t a full day), and it kicked off as usual with the convention’s State of the Industry panel with speeches by MPAA Chairman and CEO Senator Chris Dodd and NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) President and CEO John Fithian, the latter basically urging the studios to release their movies particularly for families year round rather than just in the summer and holidays.

This year’s State of the Industry panel, as it has been for a few years, was brought to exhibitors by the letter “U” for Universal Pictures, who used the remainder of the time to show off not just their movies coming out this summer but also focusing on one movie opening later in the year and previewing a few movies opening in 2015.

Universal has been having a particularly good year so far with breakout hits like Ride Along, Lone Survivor and Non-Stop and they look to have a particularly strong slate for the coming summer and fall that focuses on raunchy comedy and serious biodramas. The presentation was showcased with the first footage from Fast & Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey, the comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the animated spin-off Minions, Luc Besson’s Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson, and more!

Rob Meyer, Vice Chairman of NBC Universal, came out to say a few brief words about the great 2013 Universal had as well as their first quarter for 2014, before introducing the company’s President of Distribution, Nikki Rocco, to do the honors of presenting the company’s summer slate.

First up was an extended look at Nicholas Stoller’s raunchy comedy Neighbors (May 9), starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, which showed a lot of the movie’s funniest moments including the opening sex scene, part of the “milking scene” and others, basically getting exhibitors laughing and excited to see the movie later that night. Having seen the movie at SXSW a few weeks back, the footage shown played just as well for exhibitors as it did there, making me think this could very well be another huge comedy hit for Universal.

Next up was Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (May 30), which is pretty much what the title says. A few years back, a first look at footage from MacFarlane’s Ted absolutely KILLED at CinemaCon, clearly one of the favorites of the convention, and then a couple of months later, the movie opened way better than anyone expected, just to prove how representative movie exhibitors are of moviegoers as a whole.

We’ve already seen the first trailer for the movie and some of that footage was included as well as some very Red Band stuff that might never make it online. The plot is fairly simple with MacFarlane playing a guy in the Old West who is convinced to step up and be a hero against a menacing gunslinger, played by Liam Neeson, by the town’s pretty new arrival, played by Charlize Theron. There were some great moments where MacFarlane is antagonizing the unamused Neeson with a bit of shadow trickery as well as more moments at the county fair where someone always dies.

MacFarlane seems to have given Giovanni Ribisi another hilarious role from what we saw in the trailer where a gunman shoots his way into his bedroom while he’s in bed with his wife and he begs him not to kill him on “sex night.” There’s an even funnier scene with Sarah Silverman as a prostitute (or whatever they were called back then) who offers to show him her private parts since he’s never seen one before and when she raises her skirt, his reaction is priceless, describing it as a “tootsie roll wrapped in roast beef.”

The footage ended with a hilarious cameo that may or may not be included in future trailers so I’ll put a SPOILER WARNING here in case anyone reading this may want to be surprised. Basically, MacFarlane’s character opens a barn door to find Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown and a DeLorean, a nod to Back to the Future Part III, but Brown quickly covers the car back up.

One of the first surprises of the presentation was The Purge: Anarchy (July 18), the sequel to last year’s horror hit, which looks like a movie with a much bigger scope and scale as it builds on the premise of all crime including murder being legal for 12 hours every year. This time we have Frank Grillo as the lead, a man with a machine gun looking for revenge on a crime committed possibly in a previous Purge? But on his quest for revenge during the Purge, he encounters a mother and daughter being threatened by a mob of thrill killers so he stops to help them. James DeMonaco came up with an interesting premise with the first film, but that ultimately failed slightly (at least as a movie) because it was so low budget. It seems he’s been given a bigger budget that will allow him to expand on his ideas and he has a really strong actor in Frank Grillo that could make this a stronger movie.

As a James Brown fan, I’m really looking forward to Tate (The Help) Taylor’s Get On Up (Aug. 1), which definitely looks to be a more linear version of the Ray category of biodramas that covers Brown’s entire life. It opens with a scene of Octavia Spencer as his mother and covers his time in jail, forming his backing band and then going to Vietnam to perform for the troops.

Not a lot was known about Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller Lucy (Aug. 8) going into CinemaCon, except that it was originally meant to star Angelina Jolie. Going by the footage of Scarlett Johansson in action we saw, the movie should do just fine, because it looks like another great mix of action and sci-fi that Besson does better than anything else.

It opens with Johansson’s character Lucy waking up, having been drugged and captured and forced to act as an ersatz drug mule of sorts as a bunch of thugs insert a package of unknown drugs into her stomach. She’s put back under and wakes up with an Asian goon standing over her trying to get the package out of her, but when she struggles, he knocks her to the ground and kicks her, causing the package to leak inside her. Her eyes start changing colors and she quickly kills off her assailant before going outside with his gun and shooting the five guns guarding the room, each with one shot. Apparently, that drug has turned her into a lethal killing machine. She approaches two guys at a car and asks one, “Do you speak English?” and when he hesitates, she shoots him, so the other guy says “Yes.” She then tries to get to a hospital to do something about whatever is leaking inside of her and ends up calling Morgan Freeman, a professor who knows something about what is happening to her, saying that most people only use 10% of their brain capacity, but somehow this drugs allows people to use the entire 100%. We see how this has allowed her character to learn languages, as we see her drawing Chinese symbols, and then we see a lot of the great action that Luc Besson is great at.

The next surprise of the presentation is when Jeff Daniels showed up on screen holding flowers and walking over to a man with long hair and beard in a wheelchair, a woman commenting that he’s come to visit him for years. At first, it looked like this might be some sort of heartfelt drama, because it took a few seconds to realize we were about to see the first footage from the comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To (Nov. 14), the return of Harry and Lloyd! Daniels’ Harry is at an institution visiting his now despondent and lifeless friend Lloyd (Jim Carrey), something he’s been doing for 20 years. This time, Lloyd decides to “wake up” and reveal the truth, that he’s been faking it for 20 years as a joke. Now that the prank has been played out, Lloyd’s ready to leave, but first, he has to find someone to take out his catheter. (Look it up. It’s not fun.) Of course, Harry offers to help and starts tugging painfully on the tube coming out of Lloyd’s groin region, then getting a couple of nearby gardeners to help and finally using a truck to pull it out.

The general story involves Harry discovering that he somehow had a child with a woman he met 20 years earlier, so the two of them go on a cross-country road trip to find him. The footage just continued to get funnier as it became fairly obvious that Daniels and Carrey have not lost a beat in the 20 years since they made the first movie, and it puts Jim Carrey back into the type of comedy role he excels at. It ended with a scene of Lloyd at his grandmother’s deathbed feeling under her covers for something and she tells him to go higher… and if you know the Farrellys, you can guess where his hands end up as the old woman clenches down on his hand. When Lloyd realizes what’s going on, he pulls his hand from under the cover in disgust and she yells at him to “Scratch that off your bucket list!” as he blows off the dust covering his hand. We won’t give too much else away in hopes some of the jokes will make it into the first trailer, although we’re presuming (and hoping) this will be rated R, going by what we saw. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if this ends up being a huge holiday hit.

It’s pretty clear that Universal is giving a very special push for their Christmas release Unbroken (Dec. 25), the Louis Zamperini story directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire). For the next part of the presentation, they brought out new Chairman Donna Langley to make the introductions. She said that Universal bought the rights to Zamperini’s story way back in 1957 with plans for Tony Curtis to star, but that it spent decades going through various filmmakers and laying dormant until interest was regenerated in 2010. She then introduced the studio’s big surprise guest, Angelina Jolie herself!

Jolie gave a pretty thorough background on Zamperini, talking about his ill-spent youth of smoking and stealing and how running away from the cops helped him develop the speed to become an Olympic runner, competing in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany. Before he could return for the next Olympics, he was drafted into the Air Forces where his plane was shot down, but as Jolie teased, that’s only the beginning of his story.

The footage opened with Zamperini and his colleagues on the plane just before they’re taken down by Japanese fire and then we get a flashback to him as a boy in church acting all fidgety as well as seeing him doing crimes and running from the police. This leads to a Forrest Gump-like scene of him training as a runner and competing, leading up to the Olympics, as well as showing him after he’s drafted into the Air Force. He and a group of soldiers are sent on a non-combat rescue mission, but then we see his plane being shot down and crashing into the sea as he struggles underwater to get back up to air.

It ends up that besides Louis, there are only three other survivors on two rafts tied together and when one of them dies, they’re given a burial at sea as the others try to survive. The three survivors are at sea for days before they run into a Japanese ship and they’re taken as prisoners of war with the threat that they’re enemies of Hitler and therefore going to be put to death. Louis is in a small wooden shed when he sees one of his colleagues being tortured and killed through a crack under the door.

As it turns out, being a famous Olympian makes Zamperini a target for one particular Japanese guard, who uses every chance he can to abuse the good-looking athlete. Having an Olympian also gives the Japanese leverage in negotiating the release of their POWs and he’s allowed to go on the radio to let his family know he’s okay and he does so well, the Japanese want him to go on air to read Japanese propaganda they can broadcast. He refuses and the footage ends with a tough scene where the other prisoners in the camp are forced to stand in line before Zamperini, each taking a turn punching him in the face.

Zamerini’s survival story is a pretty amazing one that looks like it will make an equally effective film, and it’s clearly Universal’s big push for the Academy Awards this year. As a fan of Jolie’s directorial debut and this sort of genre in general, I think it’s going to be one of my favorite movies of the year just by the extensive footage shown.

But Universal didn’t stop there and as in years past, they decided to slide right into 2015 with a quick sneak peek for what they have planned for that summer, including a couple of movies that haven’t even started filming like the Elizabeth Banks-directed Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15) and another anticipated comedy sequel in Ted 2 (June 26).

Those both should do very well, but the 2015 line-up was kicked off with the very first footage from Fast & Furious 7, which is returning to the early April release date of the fourth movie Fast & Furious, something that certainly should make John Fithian happy.

The footage shown began with Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Tyrese and Ludacris all sitting in cars in a darkened bay of an airplane, obviously nervous about driving off of it because as we see, it’s hundreds of miles above the ground. On three, they gun their engines and drive off the ramp and as their cars emerge, parachutes pop out of the back to get them down to the ground with Diesel’s jeep hitting the ground and him driving off as he ditches the parachute. From there, we see a wild “Fast and Furious Party” with lots of girls in tight clothing that’s disrupted by Jason Statham with a large automatic weapon fired at the ceiling and a couple of quick bits. As the footage ended, we see that Ludacris’ car is still up on the airplane having chickened out, but Tyrese presses a button that causes his parachute to open, pulling his car off the plane.

For Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (June 12), they basically showed a short animated teaser with no footage and some words to promote the return of the franchise, opening on a giant T-Rex claw print and ending with a roar over the logo we’ve already seen. There’s not really much more to say about that, because we probably won’t be seeing any actual footage until Comic-Con at the earliest.

With two huge animated hits under their belt with Despicable Me and its sequel, Universal was bound to continue the love for that franchise and next summer, they’re likely to have another huge blockbuster with Minions (July 10), a spinoff that tells the origin of Gru’s lovable henchmen.

After a cute animated sequence showing the birth and evolution of the minions, surviving underwater against all sorts of prehistorical aquatic creatures, they arrive on a beach and see their first T-Rex. The idea is that the Minions have been around since the beginning of time looking for the biggest and baddest of villains to work for and that T-Rex becomes their first master. We then see them through time going through a series of baddies who often come to a bad end, mostly due to their doing. We see them at the Pyramids and with Genghis Khan and Dracula. Finally, they run out of villains to work for and it’s up to three of them–Kevin, Stuart and Bob–to go on a quest to find a new one. (There’s a funny callback when they see a man dressed up in a dinosaur costume to advertise some new movie.)

The movie looks very funny and fans of the Minions should be beyond “happy” to have a movie dedicated just to them, although it’s funny to think of an animated movie that’s not really going to be in English, but in whatever language the Minions speak.

Langley returned to introduce one of the presentation’s biggest surprises, the first extended trailer for the movie based on E L James’ first book in the best-selling romance series, Fifty Shades of Grey (February 14), stating that most of the executives at Universal haven’t even seen it yet. I haven’t read the book myself, but the plot seems fairly simple with Dakota Johnson’s college student Anastasia Steele going to a job interview with Jamie Dornan’s billionaire Christian Grey and immediately being swept off her feet as she tells her friend about the experience. She’s quite smitten, so when he asks her on a dinner date and flies her in his helicopter, she’s like putty in his hands. Oh, and then she finds his books about S&M and we see a couple of brief glimpses of skin. It ends with her asking him why she’s changing her into something she’s not, and he replies that it’s “you that’s changing me.” (I have to admit that as a male with bouts of hopeless romanticism that line even got me!)

That trailer really gave me a good idea of why James’ books are so popular and its Valentine’s Day opening is going to guarantee it to have an absolutely enormous opening day gross and probably a good run at the box office as well. (Having seen Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II, I’m wondering whether Lars von Trier read the books before writing it, as there are a number of similarities, too.)

Look for more CinemaCon coverage over the next few days and maybe we’re likely to see some of the trailers for the movies mentioned above in the coming weeks for sure.

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Weekend: Oct. 24, 2019, Oct. 27, 2019

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