An invigorated Sony put on a spectacle of an opening night show at CinemaCon as it took a well-deserved victory lap for Spider-Man: No Way Home and teased its upcoming slate with impressive footage from Bullet Train and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Tom Rothman was in rare form as he went through the studio’s lineup, including announcing that there will be next installments in the Ghostbusters and Venom franchises (no details were announced). Sony made plenty of noise, first by showing more than 10 minutes of Bullet Train, followed quickly by the announcement that Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, best known as global superstar Bad Bunny, will star as Marvel antihero comic character El Muerto. He’ll be the first Latino actor to lead a Marvel live-action film. “This is the perfect role to me. It will be epic to me,” Bad Bunny said when taking the stage alongside Sony’s Sanford Panitch. (Bad Bunny’s first feature is Bullet Train.) Panitch announced the El Muerto movie will hit theaters Jan. 12, 2024.
While the bulk of the studio’s presentation focused on releasing exclusive footage, a confident Rothman took a quick walk down memory lane to last year’s event. “I stood here in August and said the heart and soul of our business remains theatrical. What happened?” he asked more than 3,000 seated guests in The Colosseum, doubling down on how the naysayers projected the death of the exhibition business (“Don’t you know you’re dead? Can you read? You’re finished!”) “Sony movies did $3.3 billion at the worldwide box office during that time.”
To enthusiastic applause, Rothman then welcomed writer-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller to show off their work in progress from Sony Pictures Animation, including storyboards, of the first 15 minutes of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the wildly anticipated first chapter in a two-part sequel to 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which pushed the boundaries of animation and collected a best animated feature Oscar for its efforts.
It once again voice stars Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, a teenage Spider-Man who is transported to another universe, where he comes in contact with Miguel O’Hara, aka Spider-Man 2099, voiced by Oscar Isaac. Miles Morales will also reteam with Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as well as a new roster of Spider characters including Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew, voiced by Issa Rae.
The clip begins in Gwen Stacy’s dimension, with Gwen and her father, the police chief, as he gets a call. Gwen follows and meets Vulture. O’Hara’s Spider-Man and Spider-woman/Jessica Drew are introduced from another dimension. In the scene, Gwen’s father arrives and tries to arrest her for the murder of Peter Parker, and she removes the mask and reveals her identity. Next we cut to Miles Morales’ world, which introduces Miles in a parent-teacher meeting at his school.
Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson direct the sequel from a screenplay by Lord, Miller and David Callaham. The film was set for release Oct. 7, 2022, but the studio announced last week that it was pushing back the theatrical release to June 2, 2023. Spider-Man: Behind the Spider-Verse is the name of the second of the sequels, which is slated for a March 29, 2024, release.
He wasn’t alone in promoting Sony’s commitment to theatrical. “I’ve spoken about Sony’s commitment to protecting the exclusive theatrical window,” said Sony Motion Pictures president Josh Greenstein. “When I was here last, I said it would thrive, and it did and we did it together.”
Greenstein welcomed the “visionary director” driving Bullet Train, David Leitch. Upon taking the stage, he said that he and producing partner Kelly McCormick set out with lofty goals to make something “incredibly original, something that would get people back into the cinema. … I believe we did that.”
Leitch’s film, due July 29, is described as a fun, delirious action-thriller with Brad Pitt leading an ensemble cast of eclectic, diverse assassins — all with connected yet conflicting objectives — set against the backdrop of a non-stop ride through modern-day Japan. It’s a Pitt “like you’ve never seen him before,” praised Leitch. And the footage backed up that claim with Pitt walking the streets of Tokyo while speaking to Sandra Bullock’s character on the telephone as she details his mission — to retrieve a briefcase with a train sticker on it.
Meanwhile, on the train, Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are waiting with Logan Lerman after rescuing him from a kidnapping. After the latter wakes up, the two assassins offer up a bloody recap of the 17 people they had to kill in order to free him. That energetic sequence debuted to cheers and laughs as did the full 10-minute footage, which ended with Bad Bunny’s explosive fight scene with Pitt.
Sony’s presentation also shined a light on the anticipated The Woman King from label TriStar Pictures. Division topper Nicole Brown took the stage to recall the brief story of when Viola Davis came to her office to present the story of “all-female badass warriors.” Brown said she couldn’t believe it was true. “They were real-life Amazons,” she explained. “A real-world Black Panther.” She credited the Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning talent with being a producer who championed the film “like a general.”
Brown then welcomed Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood to the stage. The filmmaker, who said it was “incredibly cool” to be attending her first CinemaCon, praised her star as someone every director wants to work with. Marrying the material with an in-demand star allowed Prince-Bythewood to “touch greatness.”
“She is everything we all believe her to be,” Prince-Bythewood said of Davis. “She kicks ass in the movie.”
To honor her contributions, Prince-Bythewood revealed that she would be presenting Davis with an inaugural Trailblazer Award, noting that the trophy will now be presented at CinemaCon every year to come. The bar is set high, as Davis was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation.
“The five words I don’t want to take to my grave would be I was not brave enough. I didn’t risk jumping through a plate of glass to risk discomfort, failure, exposure,” Davis said to kick off her acceptance speech. She then credited late legend Cicely Tyson with inspiring her choice of career when she saw her for the first time at 9 years old. “The transformational, radical power it gave me to believe in something bigger than even my world. It touched down and landed in me. I touched down and landed in a generation of artists and I wanted to do that with my work. As an actor, I wanted to play characters that have never been seen before in a body that looked like mine.”
Davis said that when The Woman King landed in her path, she believed it to be “divine intervention.” She called the film her “magnum opus,” same for her director. “I felt it was the absolute conduit with introducing a whole new area of storytelling to the world.” She then introduced an exclusive clip reel of never-before-seen footage that displayed fierce action sequences.
Set for release on Sept. 16, the film centers on the untold story inspired by true events that took place in the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. From a story by Maria Bello with a screenplay by Dana Stevens and Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King casts Davis opposite Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and John Boyega.
Reese Witherspoon turned up on the big screen via video message to introduce Where the Crawdads Sing. Set for release July 15, the film is based on the best-selling novel and tells the story of Kya, an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina. “It’s a gorgeous film,” Witherspoon praised. “Everybody has worked so hard to bring this to life. … Gorgeous scenery and gorgeous acting, beautifully told.”
Sony ended its presentation with footage of George Tillman’s upcoming George Foreman biopic. The real Foreman made a special appearance via video and Rothman offered him the final words of the evening. “It took me a long time until I was ready to tell my story on the big screen. But I felt trusted in Tilman’s hands,” said Foreman. “When you get knocked down, you get back up again, both in life and in the ring. Have fun in Vegas — not too much fun — and God bless you all.”
Hollywood studios and cinema operators are gathered together this week in Las Vegas for CinemaCon, the annual convention hosted by the National Association of Theatre Owners. This year is especially crucial for exhibitors as they try to emerge from the ravages of the COVID-19 crisis and compete with streamers.
CinemaCon was canceled altogether in 2020, while last year’s event was a pared-down version held in late August, versus its traditional late-spring slot.
This year, all five major Hollywood studios plus Lionsgate and Neon are touting their upcoming slates during their time onstage inside The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.