ShoWest’s Growing Pains

The 21st annual NATO/ShoWest convention here drew a record crowd of some 9,000 exhibitors over four days, but the event’s popularity has proven a double-edged sword. While ShoWest has become a major draw for exhibitors seeking a look at the studios’ summer product, it has grown so big that it is now nearly impossible for Bally’s Hotel & Casino to handle alone.

“We turned away 1,500 people from the luncheon and dinner events,” said NATO/ShoWest general chairman Tim Warner.

Warner added that the organization may split the trade show and luncheon and dinner events next year between hotels to accommodate the increased attendance. “We’ve realized that we stretched the limitations of the hotel.”

The final night’s awards banquet was a star-studded gala. Sponsored by the Coca-Cola Co., the fete bestowed its annual honors on stars Tom Hanks and Demi Moore, director Robert Zemeckis, screenwriter Paul Attanasio, producer James Cameron and a lifetime achievement award to Faye Dunaway. Also feted were Julia Ormond, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as stars of tomorrow and Mara Wilson as young star of the year.

Among the surprises included a videotaped message from President Clinton and the arrival of Schwarzenegger, who presented Cameron with his award, saying, “If it wasn’t for Jim Cameron, I’d be yodeling in the Austrian Alps.” Executives from Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Fox, Buena Vista, Miramax and Gramercy Pictures were seated on the dais.

The crowd of exhibitors rose to its feet three times during the evening – for Moore, Hanks and Dunaway, who said it all in her acceptance speech: “We may be the people who make the movies, but the ones who bring them to the people are you. You complete the magic because a movie isn’t really finished until it has touched someone in your darkened theaters and moves them to laughter or to tears.”

But amid the hoopla, stars and award ceremonies, the mega-merger of Cineplex Odeon and Cinemark – creating the largest exhibitor in North America with around 3,000 screens – kept both exhibition and distribution buzzing throughout the convention on how the consolidation would impact the market and whether it was a harbinger of things to come.

Still, one of the main concerns is that the event has gotten too big. That was due in part to the increase in the international contingent. This year some 900 delegates from almost 50 countries descended on Las Vegas, up 25% from last year.

“It’s getting so big that it’s scary,” said David Pilchar of Calgary-based Landmark Cinemas. As a result, he said, ShoWest is not as intimate as it once was.

Distributors said that each year they have to weigh the cost of producing a product reel and hosting an event that feeds more than 3,000 people, the majority of whom are not film buyers.

It costs a studio $700,000 to $1 million to come to NATO/ShoWest and present a half-hour product reel. “It’s a big expense, and the question sometimes is, ‘Who are you selling to?'” said Sony Pictures releasing president Jeff Blake. “When you get results like you did today… where you have 3,000 people exposed to your reel and it really works… it’s hard to resist.”

Nevertheless, many distributors said they are torn between throwing junkets and attending NATO/ShoWest. “Attendance is at an all-time high,” said New Line Cinema president of distribution and marketing Mitch Goldman. “It’s great that it’s grown and flourished, especially with international exhibitors. But the circuits brought a lot of operational people here, and we want to reach the film buyers – not the guys who buy the xenon lights.”

As a result, New Line is considering following in the footsteps of Universal Pictures and MGM/UA, which both held elaborate junkets this year in lieu of screening product reels at ShoWest. Exhibs who attended those junkets said they were impressed with the one-on-one attention they received from the studios.

“We think the junkets are more personal, but there’s a problem because… well, where do you cut it off? You have to have a cutoff point and that is bound to upset people,” said Al Shapiro, New Line exec VP and general manager.

MGM/UA invited only 32 exhibitors on its London junket. Several exhibs at ShoWest said they were angry that they were excluded and wondered why the studio took the trouble to sponsor a lunch without showing a product reel. Twentieth Century Fox also decided to skip showing a product reel at its Tuesday reception.

The star-driven Warner Bros.’ luncheon on March 8, which featured Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey (who received the comedy star of the year award) and Steven Seagal, was one of the highlights of the four-day event.

“I really enjoyed the Columbia and Warner Bros, reels, especially since the first couple of days there was nothing from MGM or Fox,” said one exhibitor who, like many, emphasized that the major reason they come to ShoWest is to see clips of upcoming studio product.

Among films that generated a positive buzz out of ShoWest were Columbia Pictures’ “First Knight,” “Money Train” and “Bad Boys”; New Line Cinema’s “Seven,” “Mortal Kombat,” “The Grass Harp” and “The Gaslight Addition”; Paramount Pictures’ “Congo,” “Losing Isaiah,” “Jade” and “Tommy Boy”; TriStar’s “Jumanji” and “Johnny Mnemonic”; Triumph Releasing’s “Jury Duty”; and Warner Bros.’ “Batman Forever,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “The Game of Love” and “Copycat.”

From MGM/UA’s earlier junket held in London, exhibitors were high on “Goldeneye” and “Species” but wondered how they were going to bypass mall lease restrictions to book “Showgirls,” which is almost certain to get an NC-17 rating. Those who attended Universal’s New York junket were high on “Casper” and still buzzing at ShoWest about “Apollo 13.”

The Walt Disney Co. was entertaining what was expected to be 2,000 exhibitors March 10 on its Burbank lot.

The studio was expected to make a presentation of its animated summer musical “Pocahontas” at the gathering, the last event of N ATO/ShoWest.

Executives at rival studios were steamed about the org’s decision to allow Disney to continue ShoWest outside Las Vegas.

“I’m concerned that what Disney is doing is going to hurt this business,” said New Line’s Shapiro. “I don’t think the convention should have allowed them to take people away from the convention.”

Disney, which has seen the competition’s product reels during ShoWest, is not allowing execs from other studios to participate in its two-day event.

“The Disney event was in total cooperation with NATO/ShoWest,” said Warner. “Disney is doing a unique event; what they are doing, they could not duplicate in Las Vegas.” Last year Disney threw an extravagant event for “The Lion King” at the Aladdin Hotel in Vegas.

– Beth Laski contributed to this report.

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