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CinemaCon 2014: Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg hype new movies

LAS VEGAS — Movie stars may excel in front of the camera, but not every actor is cut out to speak in front of a live audience. Especially in the Caesars Palace Colosseum, the intimidating 4,148-seat venue normally home to Celine Dion that this week has been taken over by the movie-exhibition show CinemaCon.

But riling up thousands of movie theater owners and studio executives is apparently second nature to Dwayne Johnson, who on Monday night helped kick off the four-day-long event as part of Paramount Pictures’ presentation.

Of course, the star is no stranger to big crowds — he spent years hyping up fans as the professional wrestler the Rock in the WWE.

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“I love making movies, but there’s nothing like performing live,” Johnson told The Times, minutes before heading into the theater. “You get here in front of 4,000 people and the energy’s high — I can see, I can feel, I can hear. Plus, it helps that your movie is pretty good.”

That movie would be “Hercules,” Brett Ratner’s 3-D take on the famous epic set for release this July.

After Johnson was announced by Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore as the highest-grossing actor of 2013, two men dressed in warrior-like outfits banged on drums to welcome the star to the theater. He then walked through the crowd, high-fiving starstruck exhibitors as he made his way to the stage to talk about his eight-month-long preparation for the “Hercules” role.

“The goal was to fully disappear into the character,” Johnson told the crowd. “Hair. Makeup. A prosthetic penis. Rob Moore insisted.”

The “Hercules” seen in Ratner’s trailer looks different than the one moviegoers saw in “The Legend of Hercules,” the January box-office bust starring Kellan Lutz.  In the teaser, the character can be seen wading through rough waters, fighting mythical beasts and unleashing a trademark scream. The buff Johnson is shirtless essentially the whole time, sporting long hair and a beard made from yak hair. Seriously.

“Generally in Hollywood, they use lace [wigs] and it takes 20 minutes to put on,” Johnson told us in an interview earlier Monday. “But for this character, we needed a coarseness. So we had long strips of yak hair that they put on my face, cutting it strip-by-strip. I sat there for 3½ hours every day.”

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"Hercules" was one of three films Paramount spotlighted Monday, a trio it hopes will become summer blockbusters — including the fourth installment in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which was also produced by Bay. Paramount touted its relationship with the filmmaker throughout its presentation, announcing that the found-footage film Bay produced, “Project Almanac” — formerly “Welcome to Yesterday” — will be released in January 2015 after being pulled from the calendar last month.

Despite his prominence on the Paramount slate — and an early Paramount memo to the press touting his presence at the show — Bay was a no-show in Sin City. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” star Mark Wahlberg was there, explaining that the filmmaker was busy working on the effects for the June release, though Bay's absence inevitably conjured up thoughts of his January appearance at CES, where the director walked off stage midway through a presentation after a teleprompter gaffe.

Wahlberg was focused on convincing conference attendees that the new “Transformers” will gross as much as its predecessors. The last film, released in 2011, raked in a massive $1.1 billion worldwide, and in total all three “Transformers” have collected over $2.7 billion.

“I feel like it is probably the most iconic franchise in movie history,” Wahlberg said, inspiring a few eye-rolls from fans of other franchises such as, say, “Star Wars.” “This will be the biggest movie of 2014.”

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Although the new installment is a reboot of the franchise — gone are past fixtures such as Shia LaBeouf — the footage shown from the fourth film fell right in line with Bay’s prior films.

Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a dad to daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and a down-on-his luck auto mechanic who discovers that an old truck in his garage is actually an “alien killing machine.” Once federal agents learn what he’s keeping on his property, Wahlberg makes a run for it. Plenty of explosions follow — big ones that in the footage have everyone running away in slow-motion.

The movie is exactly the kind of thing that the under-25 set is most eager to see, Paramount's Moore promised.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about younger audiences abandoning the movies,” the studio exec said. “But Michael Bay is committed to making sure they have a reason to flock back to your theaters."

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amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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