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Distribs’ pipe has plenty of filler

Middling projects gussied up as tentpoles

LAS VEGAS — For an apt symbol for how movies were promoted at last week’s ShoWest, consider the Burger Pipe.

Hawked as theater food during the tradeshow part of ShoWest, the Burger Pipe is a tube of hamburger meat molded, for reasons that remain unclear, into the shape of a hot dog. Served in a bun, slathered with yellow mustard, it resembles a frank in every way — until that telltale first bite.

Similarly, Hollywood studios used this year’s Las Vegas confab to mold an array of pics into an ostensibly more attractive shape. Specifically, they gussied up middling projects as tentpoles.

Sure, there were brief glimpses of some bona fide event pics, and Disney and DreamWorks upped the ante with screenings of summer toons “Atlantis” and “Shrek,” respectively. (The latter, it must be noted, was a bit more warmly received than the former.)

But the majors weren’t out in force as in previous years. And their reticence may be related to their overall decline in output. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the number of pics released by majors fell 18% in 2000, from 103 to 84. After peaking in 1997 and ’98 to meet rapid megaplex growth, the number of releases has softened in each of the last two years. Fewer movies and more screens: Not the recipe for prosperity.

Given that context, it’s hardly surprising that most of the films given a bright spotlight in Las Vegas carried minimal expectations. The hotel halls were lined with posters for such titles as “Town and Country,” “Freddie Got Fingered” and “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.” Screenings were held for “Spy Kids,” “Heartbreakers” and a quintet of specialized pics, most with questionable commercial appeal.

Any or all of these films certainly could break out and do great business, but in the vast movie arena, most are considered scrappy underdogs getting an extra push from their owners. Even Disney’s approach proved telling. In focusing on “Atlantis,” the Mouse House offered nary a peep about the pic expected to kickstart summer: “Pearl Harbor.”

The wary mood regarding product points to an age-old divide between two highly co-dependent segments of the film business.

Exhibitors are desperate for steady supply, complaining to Wall Street that they would make a mint if Hollywood would just deliver some pictures.

Sensing that hunger, which adds to their already considerable leverage, the studios opted to play things close to the vest.

“I’m never really that sure about bringing stuff here,” says one distrib chief who, like many on the studio side, is a former exhib. “I’m afraid it’s only going to be seen by some drunk crowd.”

Las Vegas is certainly a long way from Cannes or even Mann’s Chinese. Instead of trying to generate widespread buzz, as they might at a festival or via sneak previews, studios get more bang for their buck at ShoWest by holding private screenings for top-tier exhibs. Many reps from major circuits fairly rolled their eyes when asked if they were attending the screenings and parties offered to rank-and-file ShoWesters.

Plenty of exhibs, to their credit, acknowledge their role in the dichotomy.

“A hundred years ago, Thomas Edison sat in front of the theater with a silk bag collecting nickels,” says Alan Davy, top film buyer for Edwards Theatres. “Not much has changed since then. We can’t survive without the product.”

Adds Mike Campbell, CEO of Regal, “We’re in a business where we don’t always know what’s going to happen until that movie opens on Friday.”

Even if the theater business manages to go on its long-promised crash diet and shed several thousand more screens, it still needs a steady stream of films.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners is keenly aware of the ebb and flow of product. Officials cited last June and September as particularly fallow periods.

Warner Bros.’ Dan Fellman played to the audience’s concerns when, during the studio’s luncheon presentation, he promised Warners “is going to serve exhibition by releasing more films than ever in 2001.”

Thanks to a jarring Freudian slip, however, studio co-topper Alan Horn did Fellman one better. Displaying a truly corporate grasp of the notion of film as product, he introduced upcoming Sylvester Stallone pic “Driven” as “a cost-cutting drama.”

Maybe Horn ought to put down his Burger Pipe.

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