By Kevin Lally
Box office may be down for the first three months of 2011, but the first two days of the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegasmade a strong case that better, more lucrative times are just ahead for the movie business.
On Monday, Paramount showcased footage from five potential blockbusters (not even counting the third Transformers), and on Tuesday it was DreamWorks and Disney's turn to promote their upcoming releases. DreamWorks, whose live-action films will be going out through Disney and Touchstone, may have two Oscar contenders this year: War Horse and The Help. Steven Spielberg prepared a video to promote War Horse, the World War I tale of a farm boy and his conscripted horse, based on the popular novel by Michael Morpurgowhich also inspiredthe current London stage hit. The material is surefire family drama, and the footage glimpsed has all the rich production value one expects from Spielberg. Epic scope, period trappings and a tearjerking story of the bond between boy and animal certainly sound like a recipe for end-of-year honors.
The Help also looks like awards bait, with its uplifting narrative delving into the lives of black domestics in Mississippi in the early 60s. Second-time director Tate Taylor just happens to be best friends with Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel that has become a long-running bestseller. He was there in Vegas with producer Chris Columbus and the four delightful lead actresses, Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and the lesser-known Octavia Spencer, who all seemed genuinely proud of the movie and happy to be reunited in Vegas.
A predictably mischievous Colin Farrell appeared with director Craig Gillespie to promote their 3D remake of the 80s vampire-next-door chiller Fright Night, and the action set-piece they screened immediately raised expectations for this summer scarefest: Farrell is effectively creepy, and the havoc he wreaks on Anton Yelchin and Toni Collette is truly terrifying.
Night of the Museum director Shawn Levy teamed with his star, Hugh Jackman, to tout Real Steel, his futuristic tale of an underdog robot boxing contender which Levy called a combination of Rocky, Hoosiers and The Champ--not to mention the "emerging edge of visual effects" used in his latest effort. Levy promised a movie for audiences "from eight to eighty"--and no doubt some of those eight-year-olds will be clamoring for the robot action figures inevitably hitting stores later this year.
Later in the day, Disney previewed its non-DreamWorks product, including 26 minutes of scenes from Pixar's Cars 2, whoseinternational espionageplotline and urban Japanese backdrops are a 180-degree wheelie from the more pastoral pleasures of the original Cars.
Disney executive VP of distribution Dave Hollis also offered details on the next Pixar film, Brave, a Scottish adventure with the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and Craig Ferguson, and revealed that the sequel to Monsters, Inc. will actually be a prequel entitled Monsters University, showing how pals Mike and Sully first met in college.
Jason Segal and Amy Adams flew into Vegas to promote the new Muppets movie in which they co-star, hoping to bring the beloved TV and moviezanies to a new generation. The trailer looked refreshingly low-tech and innocent in these frenzied days of digital wonders. And for those still mourning the end of "Flight of the Conchords," the film is directed by "Conchords" vet James Bobin and features songs by "Conchords" star Bret McKenzie. And oh yes, Segal promised no frontal nudity in The Muppets--except for Kermit the Frog's.
A promotional "sizzle reel" for The Avengers did its job well, whetting the Vegas audience's appetite for the 2012 spectacle uniting Marvel comic heroes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Nick Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye. And a beguiling sequence from this summer's 2D animated Winnie the Pooh convinced this writer that this kids' film will definitely offer plenty of charm for any adults in the audience.
Disney's big preview concluded with three sequences in 3D from the eagerly awaited Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, whose previous three outings have earned a staggering $2.6 billion. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and new franchise director Rob Marshall introduced the clips, which were robust and entertaining enough to make a persuasive case that the series has gotten back to the basics that made the first film such an unexpected surprise.