International exhibitors launched NATO/ShoWest ’94 Monday with a rallying cry for free trade, as top European exhibs challenged the specter of quotas on indigenous product and called for the free import and export of U.S. pix.

Meanwhile, during the first day of the four-day convention at Bally’s Hotel and Casino, organizers braced for what is expected to be the best-attended and most ambitious confab yet, and theater operators started collecting intelligence on the 1994 movies major studios have to offer.

The statements by foreign exhibitors followed the exemption of the audiovisual industry from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and indicate that the exhibs are banding together to protect their freedom to play commercially lucrative American films.

“Exhibitors have been ill-served by the Uruguay/GATT round,” said John Wilkinson, chief executive officer of the United Kingdom’s Cinema Exhibitors Assn. “I do believe exhibitors will stop any imposition of quotas in due course.”

“French exhibitors don’t want any restrictions on American movies,” said Jean Labe, president of the 4,000-screen Federation Nationale des Cinemas Francais. He couched his politically explosive statement with the caveat that French exhibitors “want at the same time for French production to be healthy,” but also vowed that members of his org “will try our best” to ensure that the French government does not impose cultural quotas on the number of indigenous movies they screen.

In Spain, where the government has already moved to impose quotas on indigenous product, exhibitors are fighting to amend the law, said Patricia Edeline, director general of Madrid’s Multisalas Cine M2 La Vaguada. She said that when Spain’s minister of culture introduced the quotas in December, “only producers were consulted, and now there is a strong movement among exhibitors to revise this law — not because we’re against Spanish product, we just want good product.”

The outcry among exhibitors followed a speech by Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti, who declared the failure to include audiovisual in GATT a thing of the past and rallied foreign exhibitors to fight for an open market.

“You people here today are really the great arbiters of the marketplace, deciding which movies to play and where to play them,” said Valenti, standing behind the dais of the Celebrity Showroom and in front of flags from the major countries of Europe, North America and Asia. He encouraged exhibitors to support their indigenous production communities, as well as a free flow of product from the United States.

In support of his argument, Valenti cited an 8.8% uptick in 1993 admissions in the U.K. to 112 million, a 7% increase to 125 million admissions in France, a 16% jump to 124 million in Germany and surges in Denmark (25%) and Finland (14 %). Valenti said, “We live in a very simple business, if you make movies a lot of people want to see, you will be successful.”

The MPAA president concluded his speech with words of reassurance about the potential threat of new technologies, which could conceivably support pay-per-view debuts into the home prior to or simultaneously with theatrical release. “With all this new visual magic and technologies raining down from the sky and telephone lines, the cinema is alive and well.”

The international agenda provided the first fireworks of what shapes up as one of the most flamboyant conventions in the event’s 20-year history. Faced with prospects of new “superhighway” distribution systems and flush with a 1993 box office that featured “Jurassic Park,” exhibitors are anxiously awaiting the release today by NATO president William F. Kartozian of a report on admission prices, a scheduled debate on the information superhighway, and demonstrations on the digital transmission of film.

NATO/ShoWest chairman Tim Warner predicted that “thebig news coming out of this convention is that exhibition will be part of the information superhighway, and that new technologies will be to the benefit of exhibition.”

That’s not to say studio glitz and glamour is out of the picture. Amid a swirl of activity in the registration area, Warner acknowledged that special steps have been taken to brace for an anticipated 7,500-8,000 conventioneers and appearances by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone and Tom Pollock. Staff has been increased by 30%, and security by 50%, he said.

Down the hall, New Line marketing and distribution prexy Mitchell Goldman said that his company is poised to launch a major offensive when it hosts the confab’s first big luncheon today.

“It seems like every major distributor sponsoring an event is putting its best foot forward,” said Goldman, who added new technologies may be in vogue in 1994 but “but the really important thing is the software, which we’re going to start seeing Tuesday.”

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