ShoWesters smiling at sunny slates

LAS VEGAS — ShoWest, the annual convention for exhibs and distribs, opens here today amid an atmosphere of cautious optimism.

Studio execs feel good about prospects for their summer slates, and exhibition toppers have their fingers crossed that the positive vibe pans out.

“The industry is on solid footing overall,” observed Mike Campbell, co-CEO of No. 1 U.S. exhib Regal Entertainment. “Even though we were down on attendance in 2003 over 2002, it was still a pretty darn good year.”

First quarter 2004 started slowly, but overachieving religious drama “The Passion of the Christ” could “end up salvaging the first quarter for the industry,” Campbell said.

Prospects for continued box office momentum look good through the winter holidays, he added.

“Based on what we see on paper, we believe we will see a slight tweak up in admissions this year,” Campbell said.

Still, memories of past tough times linger, and industryites believe more consolidation is necessary to reduce competition and theater screen counts to manageable levels.

Cinemark recently sold a majority stake to a new financial investor, and Loews Cineplex owners Onex and Oaktree Capital are considering holding their own auction.

But whatever the dealmaking in coming months, the current half-dozen or so major nationwide chains could be reduced to just three or four eventually.

Fewer chains won’t necessarily result in higher ticket prices, exhibs insist, and a reduction in the number of competitors would allow remaining operators to focus on improving the moviegoing experience.

Ticket prices jumped about 4% last year, with National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian to release complete stats on Tuesday.

“I don’t think that the only way an exhibitor can be profitable is to get big and national,” said Fithian, whose membership — along with ShoWest attendance — includes operators of all sizes.

“There are economies of scale (for big circuits), but there are also some significant economic forces that favor regional and smaller exhibitors,” the NATO topper said. “So you will have two different models of theater owners going forward — three, if you count the smallest, independent theater owners.”

Fithian has his fingers crossed that a recent stabilization in industry screen count won’t begin to creep up again, now that circuits are getting healthier.

“I’d like to see it go down a little bit, but at least it’s stable,” he said.

There were 35,748 U.S. screens by the end of 2003, according to NATO data. That’s roughly flat with the 35,804 screens counted at the end of 2002.

The Canadian screen count for 2003 was identical to 2002 at 3,096 screens, with 56 screens opened and 56 shuttered, said Adina Lebo, exec director of the Motion Picture Theater Assns. of Canada.

“People have continued to close down nonperforming screens,” Lebo said.

So the domestic screen count for the U.S. and Canada was 38,844 screens at the end of 2003.

Elsewhere on the exhibition landscape, the nation’s larger exhibs are working with the studios to introduce digital projection and distribution to a broader array of theaters. And a sticky situation involving disabled access to stadium-seating multiplexes is working its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with exhibs hoping for a clear resolution at some point.

30 years and going strong

Meanwhile, ShoWest is marking its 30th anniversary, with organizers promising as strong a confab as ever.

“This year’s convention will go down as one of the most exciting in the 30-year history of the convention,” said Mitch Neuhauser, co-managing director of ShoWest.

Sponsored for many years by NATO, the first ShoWest was held in San Diego in 1974, when Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame was awarded the “ticket-selling star of the year award” and then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson welcomed delegates.

This year, organizers expect to surpass the 2,700 paid registrants that attended ShoWest 2003, and exhibit floor space is expected to jump at least 4% to 47,000 square feet.

Today’s daytime events form the confab’s international day.

Warners international distribution maven Veronika Kwan-Rubinek will offer a keynote address this afternoon, and international execs from the various distribs will present film slate reels.

Several specialty pics will be shown at a local multiplex tonight, with major screenings set for later in the week to include Miramax’s family fantasy “Ella Enchanted,” New Line’s lit adaptation “The Notebook” and Lions Gate’s comicbook actioner “The Punisher.”

Taking industry’s pulse

On Tuesday, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti and NATO’s Fithian will offer their annual state-of-the industry addresses. Fithian also will moderate a piracy panel that dovetails with a digital cinema session Wednesday; Thursday events will be capped by an awards gala.

Held again, as in previous recent years, at Las Vegas’ Paris and Bally’s hotels, ShoWest is always at least partly an excuse for industryites to steal away to local golf links.

But whether at the official show events or elsewhere in Sin City’s many attractions, confab also serves as a way for exhibs and distribs to huddle with one another in as amicable a fashion as possible.

From a distribution perspective, that generally involves tubthumping summer slates.

“We’re very proud of our wares and expect to have an excellent summer,” said Bruce Snyder, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, which will sponsor a ShoWest luncheon on Thursday. “Basically, we want the exhibition community to know that.”

Paramount, Miramax and Lions Gate also will host receptions.

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