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Universal brings ‘Wicked’ to movie summit

The Freeman

Universal Pictures was crowned Hollywood’s top studio last year, dethroning Disney at the box office for the first time in nearly a decade with a string of mega-hits like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and the Oscar-winning “Oppenheimer.”

So as movie executives gathered at this week’s CinemaCon summit in the face of gloomy industry forecasts and a shortage of upcoming major releases, at least one company had plenty to celebrate in Las Vegas.

“There’s not much more you could ask for than being number one at the box office, and winning the Academy Award for best picture,” said chairman Donna Langley during Universal’s presentation on Wednesday.

“It would have been easy enough to just sort of drop the mic after that one, right? But it’s not enough for us,” she said, before introducing a crop of new titles, including “Wicked.”

Ariana Grande, Cynthia Erivo and Jeff Goldblum were brought on stage to promote the starry movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. The first of two films hits theaters in November.

For many big-screen owners, Universal – thanks to a diverse mix of original movies that does not rely on the struggling superhero genre, and some smart viral marketing campaigns – offers a potential roadmap to recovery.

They are pinning hopes on “Wicked,” and animated films like “Despicable Me 4” and “The Wild Robot,” to bring much-needed customers back at a tough moment for the industry.

Overall box office receipts had been slowly recovering each year since the pandemic, but are expected to shrink in 2024. That is largely due to Hollywood strikes that shuttered film productions for months last year, leaving major gaps in release calendars.

- ‘Fresh’ -

But while rivals like Disney, Warner and Paramount have struggled for various reasons, these are heady times for Universal. Just 12 months ago, Langley brought director Christopher Nolan onto the same Las Vegas stage, to introduce for the first time his movie “Oppenheimer.”

In an expensive gamble, Universal had lured Nolan from his traditional home at Warner, promising to give his movie about the atomic bomb lavish backing. “Oppenheimer” grossed nearly $1 billion. Nolan appeared via video on Wednesday to thank theater owners for their role.

Speaking with AFP, Universal’s international distribution president Veronika Kwan Vandenberg said it has become clear the industry “can’t rely on the films that have traditionally been exceptionally strong in the last 20 years.”

Unlike competitors, Universal does not have any of the major superhero franchises that until recently dominated multiplexes. That had been a stick to beat Universal with in years past. But as rivals’ movies like “Madame Web” and “The Marvels” have flopped, a sense that audiences are tired of near-identical superhero fare has grown.

“All these sequels and franchises coming into the marketplace have done very well for a very long time. But we’re in a place today where the audience really wants to know, ‘What’s different about this?’” said Kwan Vandenberg.

- ‘Barbenheimer’ -

Social media has become an increasingly key tool for movie studios. Universal – along with Warner – benefited from capturing last summer’s viral “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.

Because these trends are typically organic in origin, it is “an incredibly hard thing to do,” said Kwan Vandenberg. But Universal has been more successful than most, with recent examples including a TikTok dance craze for horror film “M3GAN.”

A year earlier, the “Gentleminions” trend involved teenagers dressing in suits for trips to watch the new “Minions” film. In October, a viral trend of stealing posters and promotional cut-outs from theaters for “Five Nights At Freddy’s” broke out.

While the trend was extremely frustrating for theater owners, it generated priceless publicity for the Universal movie.

“When we launched the first trailer of ‘M3GAN’ and we saw how viral the TikTok dance became, we started to lean into events all over the world featuring that,” said Kwan Vandenberg. “It’s not something we’re necessarily creating. But we are helping to support the awareness and the excitement around it.”

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