CinemaCon 2024: Time for cinema’s great comeback

Foreword by Tapos CEO, Alan Roe

We asked Logan Crow, Executive Director and Founder of The Frida Cinema, one of California’s most loved arthouses, to share his thoughts on CinemaCon 2024.

His perspective really resonates with us. In recent years, we’ve seen cinemas taking a more proactive role in their own success (which I talk about here). Instead of waiting for Hollywood to deliver, they’re diversifying into Family Entertainment Centers or doubling down on niche genres and cult movies to appeal to local enthusiasts. In the second case, this naturally leads to reconnecting with the art form that put cinemas in business in the first place.

Read on to learn what Logan has to say about movies as ‘products’ and why he thinks we might be on the brink of something truly great again.

David amongst the Goliaths

Representing The Frida Cinema, a small non-profit theater, amongst the sea of Regals, AMCs, and Cinemarks leaves me feeling like a David amongst the Goliaths. That said, I always look forward to my annual trips to Las Vegas for the CinemaCon. This goes beyond the advance screenings, sneak-peeks, surprise celebrities, and bags stuffed with merch. Every year I drive home with new insights and inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose. CinemaCon gives me a sense of connection to an industry that is essentially the same whether you’re a nationwide circuit, or a single-screen arthouse. We are all projecting movies onto screens – albeit with different paradigms and priorities.

The semantics of cinema

I recall the visceral reaction I felt during my first visit to CinemaCon in 2021 when I heard two words that I would hear over and over again: ‘product’ and ‘content’.

These seemed to be the words of choice by studio executives in reference to their upcoming slate of films. “We’ve got some great product coming your way!”, “We’re excited to share some great content that’s coming to your theaters soon!” It was completely new to me to hear film referred to in that way.

Cinema is an art form.  That should go without saying, but it doesn’t, especially when the studios that are producing these works of art are referring to them as product.

These are words I’d never heard at a conference like Art House Convergence, which collectively defines art house cinemas as “community-based, mission driven theaters that exist for the love of cinema.” Of course I appreciate the fact that, unlike non-profit cinemas like The Frida, movie theater chains are businesses that rely on movies to bring in customers, making film their necessary product. But it was certainly an eye-opener, which highlighted to me a fundamental difference between the missions of community art houses, and major chain theaters.

The architects of dreams

At CinemaCon 2024, however, there was a significant shift in tone. Aside from one particularly spicy and engaging panel, expertly led by Matthew Belloni, I didn’t hear the words ‘product’ or ‘content’ used once.

This shift was further underlined by the choice to open the conference with a remarkable keynote by author and data expert Walt Hickey. This was introduced by Corey Tocchini saying: “You are the guardians of cinema, you are custodians of storytelling, you are the architects of dreams.” Hickey then went on to break down down his Pulitzer Prize-winning research on the significant and measurable effects that the cinematic experience has on people.

I have always been a vocal advocate of the incomparable benefit of watching a film in a theater, compared to on a small screen at home. So it was amazing to hear from someone who had conducted hard research revealing how theaters engage the mind and body at a physiological level. He explained how immersion in a shared cinematic experience causes incredible reactions in our bodies, both at a chemical and nervous system level.

Over the next few days were treated to discussion panels on such topics as supporting mid-budget films, and the importance of using data to connect with and complement the varying interests of a cinema’s community.

Wait… what’s going on here??

The streaming effect

The answer to this sudden shift is, of course, streaming. Many studios, large and small, have started releasing films direct to streaming, in some cases allowing for a tiny cinematic window first.

Once upon a time, a megaplex could count on Disney to pump several films into its bloodstream per year. And with them came millions of dollars of high-profit-margin popcorn, soda, and candy.  Cinemas didn’t need to do much to market the films; the studios spent billions in advertising themselves. All the theater had to do was put up the posters and standees sent by the studios, publish their showtimes, and people would pour in.

Then COVID hit, and Hamilton, live-action Mulan, Soul, and others were released straight to Disney+. Even when cinemas reopened, Disney released Luca and Turning Red straight to Disney+. It then dealt a further blow by releasing Black Widow and The Jungle Cruise simultaneously in theaters and on streaming.  And it wasn’t just Disney. Lots of studios abandoned cinemas in favour of streaming platforms – if they even released them at all (looking at you, Coyote vs. Acme).

This practice has done more damage than simply depriving cinemas of titles that would have performed well for them. It has impacted the culture of film-viewing.  After almost two years without access to the big screen, studios have reinforced viewers’ newfound habit of watching films on small screens by continuing to release new titles directly to streaming.

If the studios are no longer shoulder-to-shoulder with movie theaters in advocating for the experience of going to the movies, movie theaters are going to have to get better at self-promotion.

That was the tone of CinemaCon 2024, and will continue to be for some time moving forward.

A rallying cry

It would have felt surreal to imagine in 2019 (year of Avengers: Endgame, live-action The Lion King, and Spider-Man: Far from Home) that the pastime of seeing movies on the big screen would be in such peril five years on. But CinemaCon 2024’s rallying cry was that it’s time to defend it.

The promise that major studios will send big movies to your theater may have made cinemas complacent. But that can no longer be taken for granted. I think large commercial cinemas can learn something from the Art House Convergence. It’s time to forget about ‘product’ and celebrate the art form of cinema and advocate for the big screen experience. Know and connect with your community, innovate and expand your programming and outreach. Rethink what a movie house can be for your patrons.

I’ve spoken to more than a few staff members of large cinema circuits who’d love to see their houses embrace programming suggestions from within, bring on more classics, cult cinema, and local student films. Until now (the way they tell it) the very notion has been ludicrous. Films were selected somewhere far up the chain by people in offices nowhere near their actual movie house.  My hope is that decision-makers at head office will allow their individual cinemas to have the autonomy to make the decisions that will benefit their local communities.

Only time will tell how the lessons of CinemaCon 2024 will be heeded. All I know is that it was nice to hear cinema, and the cinematic experience, spoken about in words I can get behind.

Logan Crow, Executive Director and Founder of The Frida Cinema

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