LAS VEGAS — Exhibitors have a lot to be happy about going into ShoWest.

Twentieth Century Fox’s fabulously successful re-releases of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” propelled first-quarter box office to record highs. Largely on the coattails of those films, the overall national box office for the year hit the $1 billion mark over the weekend, the earliest that milestone has been marked.

Other studios also kept their promises to deliver more commercial product in the traditionally dormant quarter, with “Dante’s Peak” from Universal performing well and Sony/Castle Rock wagering that Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power” would wake up February moviegoing.

Expansion plans

The more-is-better revolution (and debate over its merits) continues with exhibs — at considerable expense — building more state-of-the-art megaplexes and expanding older multis, installing bigger screens, digital sound and more comfortable stadium-style seating.

Megaplexes have caught on in international markets as well.

International box office also continues to grow, although at a slower pace than in years past. Today at ShoWest is devoted to international exhibition, with presentations by Buena Vista Intl. and Columbia TriStar Intl. and panel sessions devoted to the worldwide megaplex boom.

More megaplexes along with more and ever-wider studio release patterns take center stage at Wednesday sessions hosted by Daily Variety and Consolidated Film Industries.

The morning panel moderated by Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart features AMC Entertainment’s Phil Singleton, Phoenix Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy and Sony Pictures Entertainment execs Barry Josephson and Jeff Blake. That session is titled “Too Many Pictures? Too Many Screens? How Much is Too Much?”

Afternoon questions raised include “How Loud Is Too Loud?” “Is the Trailer Better Than the Movie?” “Giant Screens: Is Bigger Better?” and “The Star of the Movie … Special Effects?”

Party time

Studio luncheon and dinner affairs promise to be entertaining — last year’s theme seemed to be indoor fireworks, loud and long. Creative party-throwers at Fox, Sony, New Line, Paramount and Warner Bros. have been working overtime to make sure their product presentations are more impressive and feature more stars than their rivals’.

And then there are the awards. For the first time in ShoWest’s history, the final-night awards show on Thursday night will be broadcast on TNT live and will be aired on radio in five top markets.

Last year, there was a six-week tape delay for the event which ran on TNT. The Coca-Cola Co. is sponsoring the star-studded event that is expected to draw 6,000 attendees. The program is also being sold overseas.

Joining previously announced honorees in Thursday’s annual ceremony will be Elizabeth Hurley as supporting actress of the year and Will Smith, who’s being recognized for international box office achievement.

Hurley, who also has set up production company Simian Films with b.f. Hugh Grant, currently is onscreen in “Dangerous Ground” and was seen with Grant and Gene Hackman last year in “Extreme Measures.” In May, auds will see her with Mike Myers in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”

Smith co-starred in last year’s “Independence Day” and is co-starring in this summer’s “Men in Black.”

One award that will be announced during the show’s final night Thursday will be the Favorite Movie of the Year, on which moviegoers have been voting for in theaters nationwide and on the Internet.

International exhibitor of the year Heiner Kieft will be honored today during the Buena Vista Intl. luncheon, and Sony/Loews Theatres chair Barry Loeks will receive the ShoWester of the Year award today, following MGM chairman Frank Mancuso’s opening remarks.

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