Shows pix to ShoWest crowd

For Walt Disney Studios last week, it was more like, ahem, Go farther west.

The Mouse, which eschewed the glitzy Las Vegas ShoWest this year, entertained more than 1,200 exhibitors, promotional partners and foreign buyers Thursday and Friday with its “Summer Heatwave” extravaganza, a sort of mini-ShoWest held on the studio’s Burbank lot.

The studio screened three full-length releases — “The Horse Whisperer,” “Six Days, Seven Nights” and “Mulan” — and 55 minutes of its big-budget, big-ticket “Armageddon.”

Disney transformed one of its soundstages into a feature venue, opening each screening with a song-and-dance number (which has unfortunately become a staple of ShoWest-type presentations) as well as remarks from Disney execs and the stars.

Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth and Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Dick Cook introduced the pics. Also appearing were Robert Redford for “Horse Whisperer” and Harrison Ford and Anne Heche for “Six Days, Seven Nights.”

Reaction was positive on all four pics, which are set for summer bows. But “Horse Whisperer,” which clocked in at more than 2 hours, 30 minutes, already had exhibs buzzing about Oscar potential.

Director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer were on hand to screen an asteroid-sized chunk of “Armageddon,” which is set for a July 4 weekend opening.

The screening brought some chuckles from insiders who noticed in the first clip — during a meteor shower in Gotham — that a dog was biting and dragging a Godzilla doll through the streets.

After the viewing, guests walked through a theme-park type display of the inside of an asteroid that Disney had created on a soundstage. But Disney marketing execs said the set-piece would not be translated for a theme park; rather it would be dismantled and stored.

Besides giving theater owners a look at the summer films, Disney’s “special presentation” of its pics last week had other implications for exhibitors: It marks the latest example of the majors’ growing dissatisfaction with ShoWest.

In addition to Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. MGM/UA and Universal all declined to sponsor events at ShoWest, citing high costs. Instead, MGM invited some 60 exhibs on a plush private junket to Paris to screen its fare.

Only Sony showed its major stripes in Vegas this year, with nine minutes of “Godzilla.” DreamWorks, New Line and Miramax made up the rest of the slate at the annual gathering of exhibs.

Disney claims it wanted “desperately” to attend ShoWest, but had to cancel when the Aladdin Hotel closed down. (The Aladdin was the only venue large enough to handle the crowds that the Mouse House expected.)

So as not to compete at all with ShoWest, Disney execs said they waited nearly two months to stage their show.

More interesting was the Mouse’s choice to screen three full-length pics, which can be a risky proposition with exhibs. “If they hate it there, you’re out of luck,” says one distribution exec at another studio.

Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group chairman Cook says the risk is worth it, but only if the pics are done.

“We could only do this when we have enough product that’s finished, when we feel like we can present an entire season’s worth of product,” he said.

The presentation is also more economical than a Vegas bash. Sources placed the total figure for the two-day event at under $1 million, which is often what it takes simply to assemble a reel for ShoWest. “There are certain advantages to doing it on the lot,” said Cook.

What remains to be seen is whether Disney — or any of the majors — will attend ShoWest next year.

Judging by the buzz at “Horse Whisperer,” exhibs and guests enjoyed the relaxed pace of the two-day Disney show. But as one Disney insider puts it, “ShoWest is still the only place where you can reach all the exhibitors.”

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