• Festivals

CinemaCon 2023: Universal and Focus Deliver Buzzy, Star-Filled Look at Future Films

Universal Studios left viewers abuzz with a CinemaCon presentation slate of its upcoming big-screen offerings and those of subsidiary Focus Features that was alternately star-studded, kinetic and packed with surprises.

Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley kicked off the Wednesday, April 26 event, which at times included other Universal and Focus executives. Jumping right in at the deep end, Langley introduced acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, whose Oppenheimer is one of the summer’s most hotly anticipated films. “I know of no more dramatic tale with higher stakes and with more extraordinary twists and turns, paradoxes and ethical dilemmas,” said Nolan of his movie, about the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb.

“Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived — he made the world we live in, for better or worse,” Nolan continued, before providing the audience with an extended glimpse at footage that showcased a characteristically exquisite sense of both composition and unnerving sound design. Shot in color and black-and-white (“But not too much black-and-white, don’t worry,” joked Nolan), Oppenheimer will enjoy a multi-format release on July 21 that will include 70mm IMAX and 70mm.

After Universal’s Jim Orr and Veronika Kwan Vandenberg stated their goal to create more movies than any other studio and reiterated a commitment to producing not only tentpole entertainment but medium, small and arthouse films as well, Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri took the stage, enjoying an applause-laden victory lap for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which has grossed $900 million-plus to date.

While Illumination may be known as the house that the Minions built, Meledandri spoke some about both original stories and characters (“When we dare to offer people something new we light up their imaginations and unite joy in unexpected places,” he said), and it was in that spirit that he introduced a trailer for the new animated movie Migration, written by The White Lotus creator Mike White.

Releasing for Christmas, the film puts a unique spin on great tradition of family road trips, telling the story of a group of ducks whose patriarch (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) is terrified to leave their pond. When his wife (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) forces his hand (well, wing), the group sets off on an adventure that will expand their horizons. The rest of the voice cast includes Awkwafina, Keegan-Michael Key, Danny DeVito and Carol Kane.

Next, Will Ferrell took the stage in support of Strays, holding the dog, Sophie, whose voice he provides in the R-rated comedy, releasing June 9. Feigning outrage over the greater attention afforded her by the audience, and derisively comparing their credits on IMDb, Ferrell introduced a trailer for the movie — the story of an oblivious canine who, abandoned by his owner (Will Forte) teams up with a motley crew of strays (voiced by Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher and Randall Park) to seek revenge. For those wondering if Cocaine Bear would provide the year’s only cinematic hijinks related to accidental animal drug ingestion, the ribald Strays shows that the answer is no.

Producer Jason Blum and director David Gordon Green, fresh off $500 million in theatrical box office for their three-film re-imagination of Halloween, appeared next, with Blum teasing franchise futures for Megan and The Black Phone, and even confirming a release date of January 2025 for the former. The big news, of course, was a first-look trailer at the debut film in what is another planned trilogy reworking of an iconic horror property: The Exorcist: Believer, in which Ellen Burstyn reprises one of her most memorable roles.

Back to animated fare, viewers were given a look at a trailer for Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, which will premiere at the Annecy International Animation Festival in June in advance of its theatrical release the same month.

Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick then took the stage, exhibiting great chemistry in a banter-filled set-up for the new Trolls: Band Together. After an apology of sorts to exhibitors for the franchise’s second entry (“We had a little detour onto streaming, but the pandemic did crazy things to all of us. I have an imaginary friend now,” joked Timberlake), the pair introduced a glittery, energetic trailer which finds Poppy and Branch out of the friend zone and now a couple, while one of Branch’s cousins is kidnapped by some pop star villains.

Taking the stage to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” Jack Black had the benefit of no such audiovisual companion for Kung Fu Panda 4, not set to release until 2024. After a bit feigning belated discovery of this fact, Black launched into a high-energy, two-minute reenactment of the movie’s logline, in which Po is promoted to spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace, but has first to do battle with a villain, Chameleon, who can summon all of his enemies from the past.

Pivoting to more adult-minded fare, Focus Features Chairman Peter Kujawski took the stage and evocatively described specialty films as honeybees, helping to cross-pollinate the exhibition marketplace. First up were trailers for Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, offering delights and amusements of a piece with those of their respective affiliated forebears. Meanwhile, standout first looks at Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, starring Paul Giamatti, and Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls, starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan, tabbed them as films to keep an eye on in the annual awards derby.

For Fast X, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson and Sung Kang took the stage (with Rodriguez performing an acrobatic tumble roll), walking exhibitors down memory lane in the brawny, nine-entry action franchise, sprung from improbable roots, which has now gone on to feature four female Oscar-winning actors (Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson and Rita Moreno) in supporting roles.


After this set-up, series star Vin Diesel then entered and took the stage by himself, declaring, “I like this room better than the Oscars.” In a sometimes meandering but nevertheless heartfelt 10-minute monologue praising the role of exhibitors in the franchise’s success, Diesel set up a piece of Fast X footage that was most notable for its extended look at an intense, hand-to-hand combat scene between Rodriguez and Theron.

Although releasing 27 films in 2023, Universal didn’t limit themselves to this calendar year. Following a brief reset, a stunt team from 87North took over the Colosseum stage at Caesars Palace, complete with motorbikes, swordplay, and 11-meter tumbles.


This action extravaganza was all a set-up for The Fall Guy, an adaptation of the 1980s television show starring Lee Majors that will hit theaters in March 2024. Joined by stars Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, director David Leitch gave the audience an exclusive and well received look at his action-packed production — lined with notes of relationship comedy, since Gosling and Blunt play exes, with the former an injured, retired stuntman pressed into service to help steady the production of the latter’s big-budget directorial debut.

Langley then came back onstage to close Universal’s production with an extra Wicked treat. Though the film is only halfway through shooting in the United Kingdom and slated for a two-part release in November 2024 and December 2025, CinemaCon attendees got a good look at director Jon Chu’s adaptation of the smash hit Broadway musical, starring Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande. Featuring loads of behind-the-scenes footage, intercut with contextual musings from Chu and producer Marc Platt, the material provided a good sense of the project’s production design and staging, and left many in the audience buzzing about a stage-to-screen translation that looked epic in just about every way.