LOS ANGELES/LAS VEGAS, April 15, (Agencies): A day after 20th Century Fox announced it would be releasing Warren Beatty’s as yet untitled Howard Hughes film in partnership with New Regency later this year, the studio took over the Colosseum at Caesars Palace to show off its upcoming slate. But amid the blockbuster noise of hotly anticipated titles like “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” it was a prestige drama from subsidiary Fox Searchlight that truly stood out from the fray.
Searchlight acquired Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” out of Sundance for a hefty price tag of $18 million in January, so the specialty division needs it to be a hit. Part of that deal stipulated that an educational roadshow component be provided, whereby Parker will travel with the film and speak to its story and themes. All the more reason, then, for this to be Searchlight’s first year presenting at CinemaCon, to get exhibitors on board.
Studio chiefs Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula were on hand to tout the movie, which is set to be their big awards hopeful for the fall, and one that will likely pick up considerable steam a year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It’s scheduled for release on Oct 7.
Searchlight landed Parker’s debut over a higher bid from “the leading streaming company,” Gilula said, referring to Netflix’s attempt to seize the title. It was an “electric premiere,” he recalled, noting the film’s oft-discussed pair of standing ovations. Gilula also pointed to a sweep of Sundance’s jury and audience awards as a “strong commercial indicator,” though Searchlight’s own “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” nabbed the same pair of prizes in 2015 and still proved to be a box office bust last summer.
Nevertheless, the team that brought us “12 Years a Slave” knows exactly what it’s doing here. The trailer for the film, set to Andra Day’s Grammy-nominated “Rise Up” and revealed to audiences for the first time at the convention, presents “Birth” as a stirring, powerful drama that, again, felt like a real change of pace from the usual here.
Parker — this year’s CinemaCon breakthrough director of the year award recipient — then took the stage with one of the film’s stars, Aja Naomi King. He said it felt like just yesterday that he was a college student, shocked to be learning about Nat Turner’s story for the first time. He shot the film, his directorial debut, in just 27 days.
Fox closed with a hero to this particular crowd, “Avatar” director James Cameron. Cameron, along with producer Jon Landau, is an open detractor of home viewing options like the Screening Room. So he lathered up the audience with plenty of the same pro-theatrical rhetoric that has become a natural theme throughout this year’s convention. He then went on to update everyone on his progress with the sequels to his 2009 box office megahit.
“Since the release of the first movie, we’ve been expanding the world of ‘Avatar’ through partnerships that keep the franchise in the public consciousness,” he said. To wit, he noted initiatives with Disney Theme Parks (the multi-acre “Pandora: The World of Avatar” area currently being constructed in Florida), Cirque du Soleil (the touring “Toruk: The First Flight”) and Dark Horse comics.
Finally, before that sudden bomb scare, Lionsgate put a bow on studio presentations this year with looks at films like “John Wick: Chapter Two” (not an awards movie, natch) and “Deepwater Horizon” (possibly a player). But of significant note was Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” follow-up, “La La Land.”
Male Star of the Year honors went to Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lex Luthor in the recently released “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Female Stars of the Year were Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Kathryn Hahn and Annie Mumolo. They team up in the raunchy comedy, “Bad Moms,” which comes out July 29.
Five-time Academy Award nominee Susan Sarandon was honored with the Cinema Icon Award.
The Ensemble of the Universe Award went to the cast of “Independence Day: Resurgence”: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Jessie Usher, Sela Ward, Vivica A. Fox and Brent Spiner.
Other honorees: Male Star of Tomorrow, Stephen Amell; Female Star of Tomorrow, Gina Rodriguez; Producer of the Year, Jason Blum; Comedy Stars of the Year, Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick and Adam DeVine; Breakthrough Director of the Year, Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation”.