'Godzilla', 'Zorro' excite crowd at ShoWest

LAS VEGAS — Highlighted by the ground-shaking first lengthy glimpse of “Godzilla” and some scene-stealing cuts from “The Mask of Zorro,” Sony Pictures Entertainment showed exhibitors at ShoWest how it will defend its 1997 title as the year’s top-grossing studio.

The Sony dog-and-pony show was introduced by Sony Releasing president Jeff Blake, who reminded exhibs that the studio had delivered on his promise last year of a good year. Citing a 1997 record gross of nearly $1.3 billion in domestic B.O., Blake told 3,000-odd assembled theater owners: “I can now stand here and say we’re a company capable of many good years.”

Adding a little Vegas sizzle, Sony turned the clip presentation into a full-scale live musical number, with Leslie Nielsen starring as Sony president and chief operating officer John Calley and a powder-wigged Robert Goulet as Blake. Nielsen’s lip-synching was so off the mark that it seemed an unintentional homage to the original dubbed “Godzilla” pics.

The musical approach was cute, but exhibs were more impressed by Sony’s clips, which included the Sharon Stone starrer “Gloria,” the Bryan Singer-helmed adaptation of Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” for Phoenix Pictures, “Eight Millimeter” with Nicolas Cage under Joel Schumacher’s direction, “The Big Hit” with Mark Wahlberg, a new version of “Les Miserables” and the Michelle Pfeiffer drama “The Deep End of the Ocean.”

For “Godzilla,” Sony showed eight minutes of footage that for the first time gave the audience a glimpse of more than just the foot or tail of the computer-generated monster hatched by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Sony marketing prexy Bob Levin has been careful to keep the big lizard under wraps in the TV ads, with only hints of his appearance.

ShoWesters were dutifully awed by the footage, which looked to take CGI monsters to new heights. But some pointed to the film’s massive hype-campaign as creating a difficult expectation for the film to live up to.

Exhibs said they were surprised at how sharp “Zorro” looks. One theater owner said it may be turn out to be one of the few summer movies that has a truly dramatic story and premise.

Sony’s slate was also targeting the Clearasil crowd with sex-laced flashes from such pics as “I Still Know,” the sequel to last year’s sleeper slasher hit “I Know What You Did Last Summer”; the teen coming-of-age comedy “Can’t Hardly Wait” and a lunge into Latin dance with Vanessa Williams and Chayanne in “Dance With Me.”

Sony also showed a brief bit from “Madeline,” the Frances McDormand starrer based on the popular French kid books.

With the absence of most of the majors at ShoWest, Sony stood tall with a stage full of talent. But big names like Antonio Banderas, Matthew Broderick, Nicolas Cage, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon were in the minority on stage, offering a smaller volume of star presence than the standard set by Warner Bros. in past years at the event.

Clearly, Sony’s hopes for 1998 rest on a green lizard and green movie stars as a phalanx of Gen-X newcomers dominated the dais.

Calley managed to preside over the show without uttering a single word, but he told Daily Variety afterward that Sony’s strength is the new generation that turned “Last Summer” into a sleeper surprise. That pic’s star Jennifer Love Hewitt had two films in Sony’s promo reel.

Sony’s approach also keeps costs low by not relying on gross-participating stars who don’t always open films.

“Trying to get to the core group of major directors and proven stars that deliver an opening weekend is such a difficult game for all studios,” Calley said. “We think the audience is telling us something. There is a real thriving audience for material in that segment. They seem to like films about themselves. And we’re candidly catering to it.”

Sony’s desire to put an upbeat spin on all its product may have undersold the heart-wrenching premise of Chris Columbus’ untitled project, once known as “Stepmom.”

The trailer indicates a feel-good movie, rather than a weepie, for the Christmas season. It characterizes Ed Harris’s ex-wife Susan Sarandon and current flame Julia Roberts as zany competitors for his kids’ affection.

What the trailer doesn’t say is that Sarandon’s character is terminally ill and the film is about her bitterness for not only losing a husband, but also her children, to Roberts. At the same time, she realizes she must groom Roberts to take her place for the sake of her kids.

Also noteworthy in the promo reel was the preponderance of the Mandalay Entertainment tiger logo, which was attached to six of Sony’s films. Mandalay recently brokered a deal to move to Paramount Pictures with Sony’s blessing. But if the product reel is any indication, the move may leave Sony with quite a large gap in next year’s lineup.

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