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CinemaCon: Five Universal Pictures releases to get excited about

Universal's CinemaCon presentation began with a bang: "Furious 8" and two sequels to "Fifty Shades of Grey"

By Thursday, exhibitors had seen so many trailers, teasers and sizzle reels at CinemaCon that Universal Pictures faced an uphill battle as the final studio to present its upcoming slate.

Perhaps sensing that inevitable fatigue, Universal started with a bang. First, studio chair Donna Langley announced that the next two "Fifty Shades of Grey" sequels will be released around Valentine's Day in 2017 and 2018. Then, Vin Diesel came on stage to announce that yes, "Furious 8" is happening. (It'll come out in April 2017.)

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FOR THE RECORD

April 24, 10:35 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the "Fifty Shades of Grey" sequels will open in 2016 and 2017. They will open in 2017 and 208.

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FULL COVERAGE: CinemaCon 2015

Reporters scurried out of the theater to file stories about the announcements, but Universal wasn't done, showing off about a dozen films and bringing out big-name talent such as Elizabeth Banks, M. Night Shyamalan, Seth MacFarlane and Amy Schumer.

What should you get excited about seeing? Here's the best stuff we saw at the theater owners and operators convention in Las Vegas.

"Crimson Peak"

October 9, 2015

"That's a big walk for a fat man," Guillermo Del Toro said, taking a breath after making the long trek into the middle of the Colosseum's stage. The crowd was glad he'd made it after seeing the first glimpses of "Crimson Peak," the director's movie about a ghost-haunted mansion that entraps a family and two young lovers. Del Toro described the film as a "gothic romance" inspired by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens -- something beautiful but with "sick and twisted elements. That's why I like it," he said with a laugh.

The director said he wanted to make the film be "mostly practical," meaning he tried to keep special effects to a minimum. He said he and his team spent around eight months working on the movie's set design, trying to create an "operatic spectacle that could be closer to fairytale in terms of how exquisite it would be." That involved building a four-story gothic mansion that resembles the creepy house in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," the 2011 horror film that Del Toro produced about a different haunted mansion.

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska star as the film's romantic interests, but as Wasikowska moves into her lover's home, his sister -- played by Jessica Chastain -- worries that she will soon discover the place's hidden secrets: Creepy ghosts with long, witch-like fingers that exist within its walls.

"A house as old as this one becomes in time a living thing," Hiddleston cautions Wasikowska. "It starts holding on to things."

"Everest"

September 18, 2015

Yes, we've seen countless stories told about treks up Mt. Everest, but Baltasar Kormakur's take on Jon Krakauer's bestselling "Into Thin Air" somehow still looks like a breath of fresh air. Featuring a star-studded, beard-heavy cast -- Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin -- the movie centers on the 1996 disaster in which a blizzard killed climbers. Shot in Italy, Nepal and Iceland, the film's scenery looks authentically terrifying -- cold and white, dizzyingly high.

"I was the only director foolish enough to take this job on," Kormakur told movie theater owners, referring to the "grueling circumstances" in which he shot. At some points, he said, the production crew climbed so high that donkeys had to carry camera equipment. "I wanted to make a big-scale adventure film," he said. "But a drama with the heart of an indie."

"Ted 2"

June 26, 2015

We'll admit: When we first saw the trailer for "Ted 2" a couple of months ago, we worried that the foul-mouthed bear might not be as funny the second time around. But opinions changed after seeing new footage at CinemaCon -- and seeing how well it played with the crowd. To be fair, writer-director Seth MacFarlane had just softened them up by making a ton of theater owner jokes. He explained that in the new film, Ted has matured -- he's married and wants to be a dad, but he still parties and does drugs.

"He still smokes weed, and so do his fans -- which is good, because more stoners in the audience means more popcorn sales," the filmmaker said. "So if somebody wants to toke up in the bathroom before the movie, maybe don't be such a [jerk] about it."

"The Secret Life of Pets"

July 8, 2016

Have you ever wondered what your pets do while you're at work? That's the conceit behind the new original animated film from Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment, the company behind the "Despicable Me" franchise. Sure, the executive admitted, the idea is "simple," but it's one a lot of pet owners have mused about. Among the animals antics you'll see: A cat that tosses his bowl of food aside in lieu of sneaking into the fridge to devour an entire turkey, a Dachshund who uses a blender as a back massager and a poodle that switches off his owner's classical music to headbang to some more hard-core stuff.

"Straight Outta Compton"

August 13, 2015

This movie is going to be huge. The biopic about the origins of rap group N.W.A looks like a surefire winner -- especially because the crew's original members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, are helping to promote it. The duo walked out and instantly pumped the crowd up, with Ice Cube shouting "Where my turntables at? I wanna get up here and get down -- do a lil' somethin'-somethin.'"

The film was directed by F. Gary Gray, who described the project as a personal story because he too grew up in South L.A. The movie, he said, "goes beyond the music. It's more about the American dream." But as Ice Cube pointed out, the story also has "gangbanging, drugs, hip-hop, LAPD and FBI" -- so the rapper was surprised that Universal was willing to make it. "Some of y'all don't have [testicles] as big as Donna Langley," he said, eliciting a ton of laughter from the crowd. "She been like a homegirl in this process."

"We're the real superheroes of this summer," he added. "Marvel, they got their thing, but we got our thing too. We made it possible for artists to be themselves, and that's why we're called the world's most dangerous group. Not because we did hardcore lyrics."

Dr. Dre, meanwhile, remained more stoic, saying he's incredibly particular about the projects he works on, which should speak to the power of "Straight Outta Compton." Then Cube jumped on the mic again.

"You gonna make a whole lotta money," he told theater owners. "Don't worry about nothing."

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