Thousands of exhibitors showered director Steven Spielberg with applause Thursday night during final moments of NATO/ShoWest ’94 at Bally’s Hotel & Casino.

“Not even at my bar mitzvah” did people stand and applaud for so long, the filmmaker said in his latest of a string of public appearances. The demonstration of gratitude from the people who play his films, who honored him as NATO/ShoWest ’94 director of the year, followed clips of “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.”

The moment capped one of the headiest events in the 20-year history of ShoWest, which included a dais stocked with top studio executives from Columbia, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, TriStar and award winners Kirk Douglas, Robin Williams, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Zaillian, Elijah Wood, Tia Carrere, Chris O’Donnell and Arnold Kopelson.

Spielberg said that he was buoyed by the anticipation in the audience for each film segment screened. It “shows this audience that exhibits our film is not jaded by film,” Spielberg said.

Standing in the wings of the Goldwyn Events Center, NATO/ShoWest general chairman Tim Warner folded his arms across his chest and commented on the heavy hitters in attendance.

“NATO/ShoWest is now recognized as one of the premiere events of the industry ,” said Warner. “And from a major studio and talent standpoint, I feel it is second only to the Oscars.”

Exhibitor Relations Co. president John Krier pointed to overflowing tables curling beyond the main floor and toward the exits as the only downside to the convention’s new-found glitz. But he added that the roster of talent paraded before theater operators is “the epitome” of what NATO/ShoWest is about, and added that exhibitors have never before “had anything this good.”

In total 7,500-8,000 people attended the annual convention of exhibitors and distributors, and the event “will definitely be back” at Bally’s next year, Warner said. He added that NATO/ShoWest ’95 will be fashioned around a “100th anniversary of theatrical exhibition” theme in the next go-round, “so it’ll definitely be a big event.”

Sponsored by Coca-Cola, whose ubiquitous red, white and black decoration prompted Robin Williams to describe the scene at the Goldwyn ballroom as something “like the last supper on the moon,” the awards banquet also featured a tribute to Kirk Douglas’ 76-film career.

Against Douglas’ filmography, male star of the year Williams joked that his own career amounted to “a flea fart next to a hurricane.”

Douglas, the other recipient of a standing ovation, said, “Just a week ago a retired theater owner came up and said, ‘Kirk, we’ve made a lot of money for you.’ “

He added that he was “proud to be a part of a profession that could make a movie like ‘Schindler’s List.’ “

“The Good Son” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” star Elijah Wood won over exhibitors with his acceptance of the Young Star of the Year Award. Following a well-received sneak peek at director Rob Reiner’s “North,” in which Wood appears, the child star thanked his “mom, who has supported me throughout my career and my whole life.”

Clips from Pfeiffer’s career was capped by another well-received Colpix trailer for “Wolf,” and she accepted the Female Star of the Year award with some comments on threats to the theatrical experience. She said the award was especially meaningful “coming from those of you who dedicate themselves to keeping theater screens alive” against threats from video, cable, pay-per-view and the “information superhighway.” She pledged her support for dark theaters where she can have her “peanut M&Ms and popcorn loaded with preservatives and be taken away by the fantasy created on screen.”

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