Exhibs confront full pic plate

Will toons provide the reassurance needed?

As Warner Bros. unveiled “The Polar Express,” which cost $170 million to produce and another $120 million in P&A, at ShowEast last week, the studio was looking for a little reassurance.

Introducing the film, helmer Robert Zemeckis made a boast: “With a straight face, I’m going to say: You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

But in a year when movie admissions are down, total box office is nearly flat and the proliferation of ever-nicer home theaters and DVDs is competing with the theatrical experience, exhibs were in some need of some reassurance as well.

After the screening, Zemeckis kept up his soothing tone. “Whatever the new distribution windows are going to be,” he said, “people for centuries have gathered to hear stories be told. Now we gather in movie theaters. So, let’s give them their adventure and spectacle and serve it with popcorn and Coke!” — at which point he was reminded by the crowd that PepsiCo was co-sponsoring the party. “Oh sh… Pepsi and Doritos!”

This sort of reassurance has been part of such conventions for decades. But coming after a summer that saw faster playoff and fewer $100 million films, exhibs came to Orlando needing a bit more convincing about the holiday season.

For the first time in four years, there’s no “Lord of the Rings.” But there are several high-profile family pics vying for attention: Disney-Pixar’s “The Incredibles” is followed by Warners’ “Polar Express,” which will then do battle with Par’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” Other November contenders are U’s “Bridget Jones” sequel, Disney’s “National Treasure” and Warners’ Oliver Stone epic “Alexander.”

However, last year only three out of 10 November wide openers grossed more than $100 million domestically: New Line’s “Elf,” Warners’ “The Matrix Revolutions” and U’s “Cat in the Hat.” (This year there are 11 November wide releases.)

If anything has changed, it is that budgets and expectations have grown. If only three of this year’s November crop cross $100 million, studios will have disappointments on their hands.

In the corridors of the Marriott World Center, studio distrib chiefs say the reason for the November logjam is simple: More studios are trying to erect tentpoles during the lucrative holiday playtime.

“It’s no different than summer,” says Disney’s Chuck Viane. “If you think you’ve got the goods, you lay it down and you stick to your date.”

Par’s Wayne Lewellen says his studio has two big holiday titles, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “SpongeBob.” “You have to go to the holiday playtime to recoup these kind of negative costs. So, it was either Christmas or Thanksgiving between these two pictures.”

And U’s Nikki Rocco says they think they have found an opportunity to appeal to adults with R-rated “Bridget” while “Incredibles,” “Polar” and “SpongeBob” duke it out.

“Sometimes,” she says, “you look at your slate and you have the opportunity to counterprogram.” But she adds that the crowded calendar is here to stay.

Ironically, while studios may be nervous about the back-to-back-to-back family pics, exhibs are banking on them to reverse tepid B.O.

For one thing, family pics goose biz at the concession stand.

Says Steve Marcus of Marcus Theaters: “It’s good to have them one after the other, though it might be nice to have them farther apart. And, we would like to see a more even flow of product 12 months a year.”

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