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Christopher Nolan, Zendaya, “Joy Ride” Cast Among CinemaCon Awardees

“Those of us who’ve been called upon, sort of outrageously, to defend it [cinema] over the last few years are often accused, I’m often accused, of magical thinking, of nostalgia, of daydreaming as opposed to a sound business plan and it’s taken the last few years for us all to realize that when you’re talking about movies, magical thinking, nostalgia, daydreaming – that is the sound business plan. It’s the only sound business plan. That’s what movies are.”



Christopher Nolan said those apt words when he and his producing partner and wife Emma Thomas accepted the Spirit of the Industry honors in the recent Big Screen Achievement Awards given on the closing night of CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace’s The Colosseum in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Nolan and Thomas led the awardees in the ceremonies, hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Kevin Frazier, which capped the four-day fest of movie studio presentations, panel discussions, screenings and sneak peeks.

Also feted were actress-singer Zendaya (Star of the Year); the cast of Joy Ride (Comedy Ensemble Award); comedienne Melissa McCarthy (Cinema Verite Award); Illumination founder and CEO Christopher Meledandri (Excellence in Animation Award); and actors Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback (Rising Stars of the Year Award).


Nolan, who had presented footage of his upcoming historical drama Oppenheimer to the CinemaCon crowd earlier in the week, recalled how a young man approached him while walking by a Regal cinema in New York and said, “You make the world a better place,” and walked on.

The British American filmmaker, whose films have grossed $5 billion worldwide, continued, “The first thing I thought is, my agents never said anything that nice to me. I started to reflect on all of us who work in the movies — from the studios, distributors, theater owners, marketers and the people serving popcorn — we’re all engaged in a process that, in some small way, does make the world a better place.

“It’s an absolute good because we all work in what is the greatest art form ever created. It can combine the subjective experience of another human being the way a novel can, but it can combine, at the same time, with the empathetic experience of being in a theater, of feeling what the rest of the audience is feeling, and so I thought, what a wonderful sentiment.”

Then the four-time Golden Globe nominee confessed, “If I’m being completely honest, what the young man actually said was, ‘You make the world a better place, Mr. [Aaron] Sorkin.’” The audience roared with laughter at Nolan’s admission that he was mistaken for the screenwriter and director.

The 52-year-old filmmaker behind such movies as The Dark Knight, Inception, Dunkirk and Memento added, “I think the sentiment still stands. It stands not just for the great Aaron Sorkin but for all of us who work in movies because what movies provide is entertainment, it’s enjoyment, it’s emotion, it’s catharsis, it’s fear, it’s everything. It’s a wonderful thing to be involved in. We’re all incredibly privileged to be a part of it.”

Nolan also said, “Whatever dreamlike stories are allowed to come out of this medium stands on the foundation of your theaters. And so, for that reason, it’s a privilege to work for you. Thank you very much.”

Thomas, who produced The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet, told the CinemaCon audience about Oppenheimer, her latest collaboration with Nolan. “We’re at the part in our filmmaking process where the creative work is done and we have to put our baby out into the real world and it is a terrifying, terrifying process.”

Thomas revealed that it is about this time that she and Nolan look at each other and ask the question, “Why do we do this?”

She added, “When we’re standing at the back of one of your theaters watching one of the first paid audiences watch our movie…There’s something about watching an audience who bothered to come out of their house, sit within those four walls of the theater and be transported by the stories that we get to tell that make sense of everything that we do. Thank you for this huge honor and for allowing us to do what we do.”

Zendaya, 2023 Golden Globe Best Television Actress – Drama Series (Euphoria), said in her acceptance speech, “I love what I do so, so much and I’m so grateful for all of you because without all of you, what I do wouldn’t have a home or a place to go.”

The star of Dune, The Greatest Showman and three Spider-Man movies recounted that she went to see Spider-Man in 3D on her first date at age 15: “I think in the theater, that’s where someone can feel seen, that’s where someone can feel less alone, that’s where someone can escape, that’s where someone can build a new dream.”

The 26-year-old actress had earlier presented a trailer of the highly anticipated sequel Dune: Part 2 with co-star Timothée Chalamet and director Denis Villeneuve.

Meledandri, whose Illumination animation studio created the hits Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets, Sing and the current box office sensation The Super Mario Bros. Movie, recalled how his parents – a men’s fashion designer (father) and an activist (mother) – did not care at all about animation.

The 63-year-old New York native narrated how his dad brought him to watch the Dennis Hopper-helmed road drama classic, Easy Rider, which starred Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Hopper himself, when Meledandri was just ten years old.

Meledandri shared that in his early 30s, as a parent, he discovered Disney animated movies and was blown away. “My career would be changed forever,” he said.

The Illumination CEO disclosed that on opening weekend, he would sneak into three different cinemas to watch audiences watching his movies: “In the second theater, I was standing there and I was watching the audience comprised of grandparents, children, couples, people dressed up just having an incredible time. It dawned on me that at that moment there were 25,000 theaters across the globe that were playing our film and that there was a level of joy that we were providing for those audiences at a moment in time when the world needs joy so badly.”

He added, “I feel so fortunate to be partnered with all of you in that endeavor. So, thank you for being our partners, and as you’ve heard so many times this week, we wouldn’t be here without all of you. This whole art form is not going to slip through our fingers because everybody here is determined to make it as great as it’s ever been.”

In her acceptance speech, McCarthy recalled how, at 17 years old, she watched Star Wars for the first time and said to herself, “Maybe I can do that. And I thought of the possibilities of what I could become.”

She also recalled how on June 15, 1978, when she was just eight years old, she watched Grease and went on to see it several times more. She quipped, “It broke my brain and I did not even question why 30-year-olds were still in high school.”

The actress realized her dream, starring in such films as Bridesmaids, The Heat, Tammy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Spy. Disney had earlier presented footage of the live-action movie version of The Little Mermaid, where she portrays the villainess Ursula.

The two-time Golden Globe nominee said, “It feels a little odd to be thanked by the very institution that encouraged me towards the path of my life’s work. Movies were my inspiration, my educators and my friends. They not only opened my eyes to the possibilities for what I could become, and that feeling of sitting in a theater experiencing the collective joy and fear and love changed not only how I saw the world but how I saw myself in it. It made me realize at an early age that we are all in this together and need that more now than ever. We have drifted from our shared humanity but I truly believe that cinema and storytelling can help heal that divide.”

The talented Joy Ride cast – Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu – showed up to receive their Big Screen Achievement Award.

Park said, “We had a great time, had fun making memories. None of us ever really thought we had a place in this capacity on a big screen and the fact that you wanted this on your screens means so much to us.” On behalf of the cast, she also thanked Adele Lim, who made her feature directing debut in Joy Ride, producer Seth Rogen and writers Teresa Hsiao and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong.

Fishback, who won the Rising Star of the Year Award with her Transformers: Rise of the Beasts co-star, Ramos, recalled how she used to work at a Regal movie theater and dreamed of becoming part of the movies.

The 32-year-old New Yorker, who has appeared in such movies as Show Me a Hero, The Deuce and Judas and the Black Messiah, said she is very grateful for the recognition.

Ramos, on the other hand, said, “Thank you for recognizing this Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn.”

The 31-year-old actor first caught attention when he originated the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the Broadway musical Hamilton. He also appeared in the movies In the Heights and A Star Is Born.

Rolando B. Rodriguez, NATO chairman, received the Marquee Award.