Exhibitors awaited their first look at such movies as Columbia Pictures’ “Last Action Hero,” New Line Cinema’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III — Back … in Time” and TriStar Pictures’ “Sleepless in Seattle” as NATO/ShoWest ’93 kicked off yesterday.

NATO/ShoWest general chairman Tim Warner said exhibitors from all over the United States and 27 countries were arriving at Bally’s Hotel and Casino with “excitement and anticipation.” He said 1992 was a good year for exhibitors and “the only question remaining is will the studios keep the momentum during the summer of 1993.”

The proof will be in the product reels, which begin unspooling with Columbia’s and New Line’s presentations today in Bally’s Goldwyn Ballroom. Warner said NATO/ShoWest was held later than ever this year to allow distributors to put their best footage forward.

“A primary function of the convention is for distributors to show exhibitors their product reels,” Warner said.

Pacific Theatres president and NATO chairman Jerome A. Forman said most studios have stepped up their involvement in this year’s event, jockeying for the best reaction from exhibitors. TriStar (“Sleepless”) and Paramount Pictures (“The Firm”) are sponsoring events Wednesday, while Warner Bros. will roll out its typical juggernaut of stars on Thursday.

Last year’s NATO/ShoWest proved to be a wake-up call for Hollywood, as anxious exhibitors came to the event after one of the worst summers in history. Such issues as half-price tickets and pay-per-view movie distribution stirred up debate, while footage from such movies as “Dracula,””Unforgiven” and “A Few Good Men” whetted exhibitor’s appetites. Forman said pay-per-view movie distribution is not expected to drum up much debate because “the issue has not been pressed by the creative side of the industry” over the last year.

But one provocative development that has emerged for 1993 is Sony Software Corp.’s new Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS). Theelectronics giant is using “Last Action Hero” as the bait for exhibitors to install the state-of-the-art system, which costs about $ 14,000, depending on venue requirements. Exhibitors are expected to grill Sony on whether the system outpaces such established competitors as Dolby and THX.

Demonstration of the SDDS is scheduled for today, but Loews Theatres, Cineplex Odeon, Pacific Theatres and Mann Theatres have already committed to the high-tech sound delivery system.

While yesterday’s emphasis was on optimism (as well as unpacking and perhaps some gambling), exhibitors from all over the globe gathered at Bally’s top-floor Metro Room to take a high-minded look at the international exhibition arena.

Motion Picture Export Assn. of America president Myron D. Karlin used the event — which drew a crowd of several hundred — to rail against cultural protectionism by such countries as Spain, France and Italy. “The EC (Economic Community) today is becoming more and more like Fortress Europe,” he said.

Karlin vowed that the MPEAA and Motion Picture Assn. of America would fight against cultural exemptions in the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs negotiations. “This time we are at war and we are not going to give up,” Karlin said.

The speech marked the continued effort by industry trade organizations to build a broad-based coalition to fight against cultural exemptions. On Feb. 25, MPAA president Jack Valenti called on members of the American Film Marketing Assn. to join with the studios in the fight against trade barriers for movies and television.

In other areas, Australian exhibitor John Smith outlined the success of upgrades and expansion Down Under, which he says has led to increases in audiences and revenues. But he said Australian exhibitors are flooded with poor-quality, recycled prints from all distributors “except Walt Disney Co.,” which sends fresh prints.

“It breaks your heart when the ($ 200 million) investment (over the last five years) in Australia is taken into account,” said Smith, chief general manager of the Greater Union Organization Party, one of Australia’s largest circuits.

One of the day’s most impassioned speeches came from Columbia TriStar Film Distributors Int’l. president Ted Shugrue, who called on international exhibitors to upgrade dilapidated theaters overseas. He said international box office growth for American movies continues to increase “in spite” of “wretched” conditions in many markets.

Shugrue said exhibition all over the world will retool or else “a large American firm” will come into the market and build competing venues. He said Sony Pictures Entertainment annually spends $ 500 million on production and marketing through its Columbia and TriStar banners, and called on international exhibitors to match the commitment.

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