ShoWest must go on

Valenti to open Vegas confab with upbeat news

LAS VEGAS — Jack Valenti’s annual state-of-the-industry address will kick off the domestic component of ShoWest ’98 Tuesday. While there was considerable change, even upheaval, in the distribution sector last year, the Motion Picture Assn. of America president’s remarks are more likely to be upbeat than cautionary.

Valenti is expected to announce 1997 box office of $6.4 billion, an increase of slightly more than 8% from 1996. He will point to such films as “Titanic,” “As Good As It Gets” and “Good Will Hunting” as strong indicators that Hollywood has not forgotten the older filmgoer and support that thesis with statistics reflecting a rise in the number of viewers who are over the age of 40.

His data will undoubtedly also include rising costs to produce and market a feature, but that boost may be softened by significant upturns in theatrical and ancillary revenues, and the exhibition community’s belief in a bullish future as evidenced by dramatic growth in the number of new screens.

The MPAA B.O. figures have traditionally been slightly higher than Daily Variety’s, which last year reported $6.25 billion. However, that figure includes $450 million from Canadian theaters, which are not, according to the association, a part of its tally and would widen the discrepancy to 10%. Regardless, the annual growth rates are virtually identical.

7,000 expected to attend

Some 7,000 attendees from the ranks of theater owners, distribution, concessions and other support services are expected to attend ShoWest this year. However, their ranks have considerably altered in the wake of mergers and acquisitions and further anticipated activity in the area.

Consolidation reached fever pitch last year with the announcement of a proposed merger between Regal, United Artists and the Act III circuits, which would create a 5,000-screen-plus circuit — almost double the size of current leader Carmike. However, the UA component fell out following the due diligence phase.

A number of other companies also got the bug, with the marriage of Loews and Cineplex on the horizon and fierce current speculation that AMC Entertainment, with more than 2,000 screens, will be the next major player to be acquired.

Movie supermarkets

More than half of the nation’s roughly 30,000 screens are now in the hands of seven companies. And smaller players are becoming increasingly nervous as the giants continue to construct movie supermarkets with 20-plus screens in major and secondary markets. Wider openings and faster playoff, with the notable exception of “Titanic,” have resulted in additional erosion of the longstanding practice of zone clearances. Many of the major venues play day-and-date with competitors literally across the street; a 3- to 5-mile distance between engagements was the norm a few years ago. And the new behemoth theaters are drawing from the smaller operators, with the likely result of further erosion in the coming year.

ShoWest itself may feel the impact. A similar wave of expansion (and the gobbling up of regional concerns) in the late 1980s diminished the ranks of the National Assn. of Theater Owners and jeopardized the convention’s vitality.

However, the introduction of a trade fair — which now attracts more than 500 vendors, from concessions to seating to digital and optimal sound — and repositioning it as more of a media event turned it around. Four years ago, ShoWest sold out — in fact, it was over-subscribed, bringing down heat from the Vegas fire marshals. Organizers capped full registration at 3,400, though it attracts double that number when guests and those who attend on one- or two-day passes are added into the picture.

b>Complaints about growth

As it’s grown, many have felt it’s lost its focus. The most common complaints are that it’s become too big, is an inefficient forum to present upcoming product and that the leading players are swamped by mom-and-pop operators and the vendors.

Already there’s been considerable finger pointing as a result of this year’s absence of heavyweights Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Fox and Buena Vista (though Buena Vista Intl. is hosting a luncheon for overseas delegates).

“Most of the complaints are groundless,” said ShoWest chair Daniel Wheatcroft. “The number of people registered hasn’t changed in five years, only the trade show has grown significantly. And when you look at it overall, we have more involvement by the majors than ever before.”

Wheatcroft says that past problems have had less to do with size than logistics. What’s been introduced this year are “customer service elements.” Delegates will receive their complete ticket package on arrival rather than going through a daily pick-up. Also new are ShoWest ambassadors — exhibitors and vendors who will assist at different functions to keep traffic and events on schedule and fluid.

“In a way, ShoWest got too successful,” said one senior studio exec. “Ten years ago it was about the right size, but it continued to grow without anyone applying the breaks. For my own selfish reasons, I want to reach the top people in exhibition, and I’m more likely to do that by organizing my own event and inviting 60 to 80 people. They get more attention and it’s cheaper than hosting a luncheon in Vegas.”

MGM recently did that on a junket to Paris that included a set visit to “Ronin” starring Robert De Niro. Disney will hold an exhibitors’ event on its Burbank lot on April 23-24 for approximately 300 theater owners.

‘A very hard job’

“Dan Wheatcroft has a very hard job,” said Fox Motion Picture chairman Tom Sherak. “There’s just no way to make all the participants happy all the time.”

This year’s program won’t have quite the pizzazz associated with past outings, though the advance buzz on Sony’s “Godzilla” luncheon is that it will be a monster. DreamWorks will screen footage of its sked and host an event at GameWorks, and the independents will give an evening rather than having a cocktail reception. However, the latter function already has past participants in a lather now that the organization has taken it over from indie booker Jeffrey Jacobs.

“They have no idea who the real indies are,” said Steve Fagan of Arrow Releasing. “They’ve invited Miramax, October, Sony Classics and Gramercy and have overlooked small companies. It may be bigger, but it’s also diminished.”

The party line at the National Assn. of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada — in effect ShoWest’s parent organization — is that there are many constituencies to serve and everyone should be tolerant of the needs of the different sectors. In fact, insiders say organizers have been trying to come up with ways of splitting ShoWest into several events, but have yet to evolve a formula that works financially.

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