Wait, Why Were There So Many Movies At The TV Upfronts This Year?

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When Emma Stone, star of Disney’s Cruella and Searchlight’s Poor Things, introduced CEO Bob Iger at the company’s Upfronts presentation this week – the first time that the former TV chief had been on stage at the advertising rodeo in 30 years – it was clear that this is no longer just a TV event.

“To say a lot has changed since 1994 would be an incredible understatement and I’m not just talking about the color of my hair, or my fashion choices,” Iger said.

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Stars such as Ryan Reynolds, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Will Ferrell and Jake Gyllenhaal were all highly visible presences across the week to promote their recent and upcoming feature films.

It marked a sea change for the Madison Avenue set, who were previously treated to a cavalcade of television stars promoting the small-screen, usually fresh from the broadcast pilot process. Unlike April’s CinemaCon, which plugs movies to theater owners, or July’s ComicCon, which entices fans, the Upfronts present movies as properties well-suited to automakers and pharmaceutical companies. The streaming wars over the past five years have revealed movies to be valuable subscriber lures and, as the industry embraces ads in streaming, marquee properties for brands.

In many cases now, advertisers buy positions ahead of theatrical launch and extending through streaming, a possibility in today’s marketplace due to tighter release windows.

But what’s clear is that film is invading one of the last moments for television to shine. The golden age of television highlighted that many of the most-talented writers wanted to work on the small screen. But despite this, television has always been somewhat in the shadows of the movie world, despite paying the bills for the biggest entertainment studios.

The shift was noticeable at the very start of the week when Donna Langley, Chief Content Officer at NBCUniversal, who recently took over the television production operations on top of running the film studio, prioritized Wicked, the Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande holiday tentpole, during her presentation.

The crowd inside Radio City Music Hall was the first audience in the world to watch the trailer of the movie, which comes out November 27. She said that there were “so many ways to extend it across the company” with advertisers’ support.

“While the industry faces continual changes and real challenges, I would like to build on NBCUniversal’s storied legacy to lead a unified strategy across film, TV and streaming,” she declared.

When reading out some of the more memorable film and TV quotes, Langley used a movie line that summed up the situation for television. “Houston, we have a problem,” she said.

The new approach was most evident when it came to the streamers – Amazon and Netflix – presenting live and in-person at the Upfronts for the first time.

Amazon kicked off with an appearance from Gyllenhaal to announce a sequel to his recent Road House reboot. “The original was a classic, so many people love that film, including me and all of us had such big shoes to fill. I love this character, I love this world and I can’t wait to bring more Dalton,” he said.

Amazon MGM Studios boss Jen Salke made plenty of television news – a new Tomb Raider series from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a Nic Cage-starring Spider-Man noir live-action series, renewals for Cross, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Boys – but the biggest yuks of the day came from an appearance by Witherspoon and Ferrell, who were there to promote You’re Cordially Invited.

“As the rom-com king, I was able to give Reese a couple of pointers that really improved her on-screen performance,” said Ferrell. “That’s really sweet. I don’t like to talk about myself like this, but I’m kind of known for my rom-coms and you aren’t,” added Witherspoon. “I’m the f*cking queen of looking cute while sleeping [in movies].”

Witherspoon did pull double duty at the Amazon event, where she concluded Salke’s presentation with the news, revealed by Deadline, that the streamer was making a prequel to her Legally Blonde movie.

“Welcome to the next hundred years of Amazon MGM Studios,” added Salke, nodding to the century-old MGM, which the tech giant swallowed up for $8.45B in 2022. “Only Amazon has the ability to dive into IP and spark new obsessions across books, podcasts, music, fashion, and games. No other studio offers creators so many ways to engage with an audience. And this has made Amazon MGM Studios the home for talent.”

But even many of Amazon’s hot television projects are themselves based on movies. Noir, Tomb Raider, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Elle are all based on films.

Similarly, Netflix made movie news with a sequel to classic Adam Sandler golf comedy Happy Gilmore, Keira Knightley starring in a feature adaptation of The Woman in Cabin 10 and a new film from Kathryn Bigelow.

Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria talked up series such as Bridgerton, which launched its third season this week, as well as a new Kevin Williamson drama and a Tim McGraw bull riding series, but again it was Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz who stole the small stage at Pier 59 Studios to promote their new film Back In Action.

Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix)
Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix)

Bajaria also gave a shout out to its upcoming Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F movie with Eddie Murphy. “It’s true to the original and it reminds you why this is one of Eddie’s most iconic roles,” she said.

Warner Bros. Discovery, led by former reality TV stalwart David Zaslav, similarly leaned in to its movie studio.

Dana Nussbaum, EVP, Worldwide Marketing, Warner Bros. Pictures, crowed about how 2023 was the year of Barbie and the Margot Robbie movie had more than 50 different marketing partners.

“We opened the door to greater exploration of what we can do together to launch our high-profile films,” she said, highlighting films such as Wonka, The Color Purple, Dune 2 and Furiosa.

The timing on the latter was interesting, given that it was almost at the same time that the George Miller movie was having its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The film festival has overlapped with the Upfronts before but it was noticeable that Furiosa’s world premiere on the Croisette unfolding just hours after the tubthumping in New York.

“As we look ahead to the future, we are so thrilled with the opportunities that await our brand partners on some of our biggest new releases: Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Minecraft and Superman,” Nussbaum added.

Even Fox, a network that no longer has a sister movie studio, had a movie to promote. Yes, it was primarily there to promote series such as Grimsburg, Animal Control, The Floor, Rescue: Hi-Surf, Doc and Beat Shazam (with the first appearance from Jamie Foxx), as well as Tom Brady’s introduction to its sports team.

But it also found time to mention a new Tubi original movie – The QB Bad Boy and Me starring Resident Evil’s Siena Agudong and influencer Noah Beck, who literally couldn’t keep his shirt on.

“The Upfronts have clearly changed,” one TV boss told Deadline. Clearly.

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