Exhib upbeat for winter

Showeast attendees hammer out digital plan

Few of the movie theater operators attending ShowEast seemed inclined to nitpick over the so-so start to their 2003, preferring to root for a boffo conclusion to the year.

Box office is barely flat with the comparable portion of last year, and hikes in ticket prices since a year ago mean admissions actually are off substantially. But the glass remains half-full for exhibs.

“There are a lot of great-looking films coming out in the fourth quarter,” Cinemark Intl.’s Tim Warner said. “That could push us from having a good year to a great year.”

Rick Cohen, owner of a drive-in theater in suburban Buffalo, joked about the recent “summer of reruns” in which some sequels worked while others decidedly did not.

“It could always be better, but that’s always the case,” he added, reflecting the general equanimity at the annual trade show.

There’s broad anticipation of big success for New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which bows Dec. 17. Ditto for Sony’s “Spider-Man 2,” set for summer 2004.

But even traditional animation — often dismissed as being the out-of-date equivalent of leisure suits and dial-up Internet access — received a warm embrace in muggy Orlando.

Disney helped its cause on holiday tooner “Brother Bear” by bringing head Mouseketeer Michael Eisner to town to intro the pic. And Sony Classics drew good grades from exhibs taking a sneak peak at its traditional-animation “The Triplets of Belleville,” a lush French adult fantasy the specialty distrib hopes will become a crix-driven sleeper hit like last year’s “Spirited Away.”

The confab also offered the usual array of seminars and topic discussions, and a panel presentation on movie piracy in Latin America highlighted opening day activities Sept. 29.

ShowEast draws substantial support from south of the border, and Latin American distribs and exhibs laid out a collective piracy plaint.

“We’re probably only capturing 50 cents on the dollar in Latin America because of piracy,” estimated Marc Gareton, a Warner Bros. exec in Latin America.

Brendan Hudson, the Motion Picture Assn.’s regional anti-piracy director, said the advent of DVD and Internet distribution has greatly exacerbated piracy woes.

“The problem with digital is that it’s so much easier to copy and get out quickly than analog,” Hudson said. “I have never seen the kind of piracy we’re seeing now. Through the wonders of digital technology, we’re seeing a direct threat to the theatrical window.”

Execs cited a litany of recent theatrical releases selling on city streets in the region prior to hitting local cinemas. “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” was available in pirated form in Peru a full two months before movie theaters released the actioner, said Jorge Peregrino, Latin American marketing veep at United Intl. Pictures. And counterfeit DVDs of “The Hulk,” “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Bad Boys II,” “S.W.A.T.,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and many other titles were available one to two weeks before their theatrical release, execs said.

A ShowEast panel on digital cinema addressed largely technical issues. But the broad strokes of a business model for supporting the widespread rollout of d-cinema systems began coming into focus behind the scenes at the trade show.

Third-party financiers –likely at least two separate companies — will actually buy the required projectors and file servers to skirt federal regs barring studio collaboration on biz initiatives. And distribs will shoulder most, or even all, of the financial burden for the equipment rollout by paying those outside companies for using the installed equipment.

The studios may pay on an hourly basis for using the equipment. Alternately, the third-party financiers could charge them on a “per print” basis, charging the digital equivalent of film print costs.

From a studio perspective, the main point is saving money on distribution costs, so the usage charges would decrease incrementally over time as the third-party companies pay down their initial investment and approach profitability.

Exhibs would be mostly off the hook for funding the equipment rollout, but there has been some discussion of circuits’ paying for subsequent servicing and maintenance of the systems. Ideally, studios would like to roll out as many d-cinema systems as possible to reap economies of scale. Current per-unit costs of $100,000 or more are considered unfeasible for a broad digital rollout. But equipping, say, 15,000 screens for digital simultaneously could bring costs down to a much more manageable range of $50,000 to $65,000 per unit, proponents estimate.

A Variety-sponsored panel spotlighted independent movie distribution.

This year’s accelerated Academy Awards season has complicated releasing and marketing decisions for specialty distribs.

But while there was broad agreement on that score, panelists at a ShowEast session on independent film expressed a range of opinions on how to cope with the situation.

“It’s tougher now,” Focus Features distribution prexy Jack Foley said. But like it or not, specialty distribs must unspool potential Oscar contenders earlier than usual to generate interest among Academy voters, he said.

“Some of these films are fragile, and you can blow a film by the time you get to Christmas now,” Foley observed. “But you have to do it.”

In previous years, specialty distribs regularly unspooled awards candidates in late December and limited runs to L.A. and Gotham exclus, expanding into other markets only after Jan. 1.

Still, Steve Gilula, distribution topper at Fox Searchlight, saw a significant silver lining in the quickened kudo-season pace.

“I’m thrilled everything has been moved up a month,” Gilula said. “The press has become so obsessed with the Academy Awards that it had been really difficult to open a critically driven film in the first quarter.”

Wielding a different view, Newmarket prexy Bob Berney plans to distrib Charlize Theron starrer “Monster” in just three markets by year’s end on the theory the gritty drama will make an immediate impact and generate big buzz just prior to Academy balloting.

Theron, who is also a producer on the pic and participated in the ShowEast panel, said there’s already a lot of anticipation for the movie.

“From doing press junkets on other movies, I knew there was huge awareness,” Theron said.

Topliner said she is already well into promo stomps, a decidedly more arduous effort on indie pics lacking lavish budgets for media campaigns.

ShoWest attendance was up a bit this year at just over 1,100 fully paid registrants. Exhibit-floor participation receded a bit this year, off about 10 booths to a total 250 due to industry consolidation, organizers say.

The trade show was held early this year to secure a set of dates that would return it to its more popular Monday-through-Thursday skedding of a few years back. Next year it returns to late October while also maintaining a weekday footing.

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