Confab looks past Oscar to summer tentpole pix

The glitz is back.

Skeptics predicted a continuing decline in star power at ShoWest this year, the first time the annual convention for exhibs and distribs has followed the Oscars.

Previously, studios could justify the considerable expense of rounding up Hollywood talent by folding those expenses into Academy Awards campaigns. So some wondered whether the confab’s recent trend toward less-lavish studio presentations would take further hold this year, with the February awards a fading memory when ShoWest opens March 22.

As it turns out, the event remains largely unchanged by the time shift and there could be more stars at this year’s event than in some time. Certainly, Paramount — mounting its first ShoWest presentation since 1997 — won’t have a hard time getting noticed this year as host of a celeb-filled dinner set for March 24.

The studio will fill its luncheon dais with summer-release stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law from sci-fier “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” and Nicole Kidman and the cast of “The Stepford Wives” update.

“In no way has the moving of the Oscars impacted the show,” says Mitch Neuhauser, co-managing director of ShoWest.

Industryites are approaching the convention in a relatively upbeat mood. “The first quarter has been kind of soft, but everybody is looking forward to the summer product,” says Kurt Hall, co-CEO at No. 1 U.S. exhib Regal Entertainment.

NATO’s John Fithian says members are unconcerned 2003 went down in B.O and admissions after a record previous year.

“2002 was such a phenomenal year that even being close to 2002 represented a very, very strong year,” Fithian says.

Par has struggled at the box office recently, but execs are so high on their upcoming slate they figure promo dough for the reception and a product reel will be money well spent. (The distrib is not screening any movie in its entirety, as its summer titles aren’t finished.)

“We’re very, very excited about our production lineup for ’04 and ’05,” Par vice chairman Rob Friedman says. “It’s been awhile since we’ve spoke to exhibition in a big showmanshiplike way, and we thought this would be a good year to do it.”

Twentieth Century Fox and Lions Gate also are putting on big luncheons, though their bashes will be funded by co-sponsors Texas Instruments and Christie, respectively.

Fox plans to offer clips from upcoming sci-fiers “Alien vs. Predator,” “I, Robot” and “The Day After Tomorrow”; family laffer “Garfield”; and CGI tooner “Robots.” Costs on the product reel will be kept to about $250,000 — compared with the normal million-dollar-plus outlay — by projecting the presentation digitally.

A few celebs are expected at Fox’s presentation, but the studio wasn’t dishing details in advance of the event.

At Lions Gate’s affair, Marvel Studios boss Avi Arad will accept ShoWest’s Robert Selig Memorial Showmanship in Filmmaking Award. Beforehand, Lions Gate will screen “The Punisher” — a comic-based actioner it acquired along with Artisan Entertainment — with pic’s Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Thomas Jane on hand.

“ShoWest is going to be ‘The Punisher’s’ coming-out party,” says Tom Ortenberg, distribution topper at Lions Gate. The mini-major also will screen its Oz laffer “Danny Deckchair” as part of the convention’s specialty pics night, which, as usual, will be preceded by an array of international exhib events earlier in the day.

The only other full screenings scheduled are New Line’s “The Notebook” and Miramax’s “Ella Enchanted.”

Sony, a regular past host of ShoWest receptions, is limiting its participation to a couple of screenings of a new trailer for “Spider-Man 2.” But studio insiders, while mum on details, hint the presentation will be highly glam.

Warner Bros. opted out of a ShoWest hosting role after deciding to corral film stars on its Burbank, Calif., lot for an exhib reel presentation later in the year.

“The whole process (used to) cost us over $3 million,” says Warners domestic distribution boss Dan Fellman. “But we do support ShoWest and participate in other ways.”

An awards gala set for the final night will cap events at the confab, ensconced as in other recent years at the Paris and Bally’s hotels in Las Vegas. Organizers expect to improve on last year’s attendance of 2,700.

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