Tremors shake ShoWest

Money, digital conversion among big challenges

LAS VEGAS — It’s not hard to imagine what the hot topic of conversation will be when distributors and exhibitors meet for this week’s ShoWest, which kicks off today at Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas.

Over the past year, exhibition has been shaken by fiscal tremors so severe, the industry is likely to look quite different once the rocking subsides. With nearly a dozen companies in bankruptcy reorganization and others considering such moves, many exhibs will soon be run by new owners with new ideas about how to do business.

“What’s going to be on everybody’s mind is how are we doing with the challenges we are facing,” National Assn. of Theatre Owners prexy John Fithian said.

Another prominent subject is bound to be the industry’s long-awaited conversion to digital-projection technology.

When the financial crunch first hit exhibition last year, many observers said digital would be pushed further into the future as cash-strapped exhibs stiffened their resistance to spend money on converting their projection equipment.

But more recently, there are signs that some new, digital-friendly owners may be gaining a place of prominence in the industry.

New or anticipated ownership at United Artists Theatres, Loews Cineplex, Regal Cinemas and other circuits boasts ties to fiber-optic network companies. That, many believe, could fuel an acceleration in exhibs’ transition to digital cinema.

Meanwhile, word has spread in advance of ShoWest that a handful of companies hoping to sell digital cinema technology to distribs and exhibs will advance schemes for paying for the conversion. Boeing, Technicolor and Qualcomm are expected to propose deals that would allow for the financing of requisite digital hardware through lease terms or other arrangements.

More prosaic — but no less pressing — areas to be explored at ShoWest include the first reductions in industry screen counts for decades. A recent megaplex building binge was a big cause of the industry’s current financial crisis and only now are exhibs trying to compensate by making big cutbacks among older, money-losing properties.

Another practical-minded concern involves possible cutbacks in longstanding “co-op advertising” agreements. Under such arrangements, circuits defray a portion of distribs’ costs for advertising movies in local newspapers, but cash-poor exhibs increasingly view the expenditures as unwarranted.

On a more positive note, NATO’s Fithian says exhibs also will be kibitzing about 2001’s sudden upsurge in box office attendance after a year in which grosses made only modest gains — and only because of higher ticket prices.

“I personally feel we hit the bottom and are starting to turn things around again,” the trade group prexy said. “This year, we’re on a tear and box office and admissions are going up while screen count is going down — which is also the right direction. It’s the first time we’ve had that combination in years.”

Meanwhile, the 2001 show marks the first time NATO’s California unit won’t be acting as ShoWest organizer but only as co-sponsor. The confab is now managed by Sunshine Worldwide Group, which bought the event and its fall ShoEast sister show from NATO.

SWG topper Robert Sunshine projects a 10%-13% drop in attendance this year to a total of 3,000-3,100 attendees.

“The reason we’re down is primarily that a lot of exhibitors are having problems and some are in bankruptcy proceedings,” Sunshine said. “But all of the major circuits are all attending. It’s just that we have fewer people coming from each.”

An educational program dubbed ShoWest University is among the new organizers’ first-time embellishments to the trade show. A series of seven seminars on topics such as concession activities, film captioning and newspaper promotions will be offered as a professional-development component on the show’s final day, Thursday.

Today is International Day, with ACNielsen EDI and Imax co-sponsoring a luncheon at which international talent and exhib awards will be discussed. Tonight, screenings are planned for a handful of pics from specialty distribs Sony Pictures Classics, Fine Line, USA Films, Fox Searchlight and First Look.

Tuesday will feature the annual ShoWest address by Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti, preceded this year by a speech by Imagine Entertainment co-topper Brian Grazer. The day’s other scheduled events include two of a total four studio product presentations.

MGM will unspool its product reel Tuesday morning, followed by a screening of upcoming laffer “Heartbreakers” starring Gene Hackman, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver. In the evening, Miramax will show film clips, screen kidpic “Spy Kids” and host a party. (The screening will be in digital and feature a satellite delivery system marketed by Boeing.)

DreamWorks will show clips and screen summer animated feature “Shrek” Wednesday night, and Warner Bros. will offer a product presentation and exec remarks at a luncheon set for Thursday. A late addition Thursday after the Warners event is a product reel from Disney.

Growing resistance among Hollywood studios to lavish ShoWest spending reduced the usual two or three studio-sponsored lunches to the one Warners affair this year. But vendors Technicolor and Qualcomm will sponsor a digital-themed luncheon on Wednesday.

A star-studded awards gala is set to close the confab Thursday night.

Most speeches and food events will take place at the Las Vegas Strip’s Paris hotel, while ShoWest’s 625 exhibiting companies will set up shop in adjacent Bally’s.

Panel presentations will be staged in both venues, including a Variety-sponsored session dubbed “The Big Opening: The State of Motion Picture Marketing,” set for 4:15 p.m. Wednesday at Le Theatre des Arts at Paris.

Moderated by Variety publisher-VP Charles Koones, the panel will feature Brad Ball, prexy of domestic film marketing for Warners; Dennis Rice, marketing prexy at Miramax; Arthur Cohen, worldwide marketing prexy at Paramount; Oren Aviv, prexy of Buena Vista Pictures marketing; and Joe Nimziki, prexy of theatrical marketing for New Line.

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