Indies seize screen time from curtain-shy Hollywood majors

ShoWest after the Oscars means different points of emphasis in this 30th edition. The only constant will be the usual mix of restless execs confronted by exhibitors, sampling studio sneaks, scarfing down food, and hoping for a photo of a genuine movie star.

A loaded summer is looming, with claims being staked on all the choice weekends. When it comes to exploiting ShoWest, however, companies pursued a somewhat different tack this year — drumming up excitement about lesser-known films and letting the big sequels rest on their reputations.

The three films being screened this year include two from mini-majors in counter-programming mode — New Line’s “The Notebook” and Miramax’s “Ella Enchanted” — and one big show from Lions Gate, the Marvel comics-inspired “The Punisher.”

Majors that have been big ballyhooers in the past are relying mostly on de rigeur product reels. And Sony, which was rumored to be bringing in a full preview of its second chapter on a webslinging crimefighter played by Tobey Maguire, is instead putting the spotlight on the trailer for the “Spider-Man 2,” which bows July 2. A studio rep hints some “surprises are in store” and the show will not end after 2½ minutes.

“We weren’t really scheduled to do anything at ShoWest this year,” says Sony distrib prexy Rory Brewer, “but with this really terrific trailer, we couldn’t resist showing it. We asked if ShoWest could arrange something special for us.”

The studio couldn’t present “Spidey 2″ in full anyway, since the effects-heavy film will be in tweak mode until practically the week before it reaches theaters, according to one f/x insider.

ShoWest co-director Mitch Neuhauser is still bullish on this year’s expo, which he says will be “one of the busiest, most jampacked ShoWests,” citing participation from studios that’s “so varied and diverse and in a larger number than we’ve had in many years.”

What’s behind this year’s dearth of tentpole screenings? Lack of completed product for some. Warner Bros.’ “Catwoman” is still in post, though the studio will send a delegation to support star Halle Berry’s designation as ShoWest female star of the year.

Likewise, Par will show footage from its retro-futuro “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” but the action at the Par dinner Thursday night will focus on its show reel and honorees Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Miramax’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2″ is also not ready for ShoWest, besides being skedded for Cannes.

But the other reason is lack of a perceived upside. “You don’t need to screen James Bond for the exhibition community,” Neuhauser says. “Exhibitors know what they’re getting. Excitement comes from exposing the exhibition community to a film they may not know about.”

A similar rationale is behind DreamWorks’ decision not to screen “Shrek 2.” The studio is confident exhibs will be beating down its door to book the followup to the animated smash, so why — the thinking goes — invest in additional publicity?

There’s always the risk of screening your big fat summer movie and coming up a stiff. A classic example was Universal’s rough-cut screening of Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” at ShowEast in 1995.

Exhibs went in expecting a “GoodFellas,” but many hustled to the exits upon finding it too violent for their tastes. After the belly-flop was reported in the trades, U refrained from such screenings for the next two years.

Since then, attendees have to keep mum; as for press, it can attend only if it doesn’t review the films or mention how auds reacted.

The risk of a fizzle doesn’t faze Russell Schwartz, New Line’s president of domestic marketing, who sees ShoWest as an opportunity to create a buzz with Nick Cassavetes-directed “The Notebook.” It’s a romance featuring newcomer Rachel McAdams, ShoWest star of tomorrow Ryan Gosling, James Garner and Gena Rowlands, who are set to attend.

Tear-jerker’s release date is June 25, a week before “Spider-Man 2.” “It’s a film based on a huge bestseller (by Nicholas Sparks) for a female audience,” Schwartz says. “We think it’s a great alternative to the (typical) June and July programming.”

Schwartz is hoping that the tendency of ShoWesters to bring their spouses along to Vegas will work in the movies’ favor. “Couples will enjoy this movie. It’s a bit of a gamble, but this is a movie that needs to be discovered,” he says.

Counterprogramming is also the byword for Rick Sands, Miramax chief operations officer. Along with a product reel, the mini-major planned to screen “Ella Enchanted” in its entirety before its Tuesday dinner. The Cinderella update, opening April 9, is about a teen (Anne Hathaway) who has been placed under a spell that requires her to always be obedient.

It fell to Lions Gate to provide the special-effects sizzle with “The Punisher,” based on the Marvel comics tale about G-man crime-fighter Frank Castle. The pic was set to unspool before Lions Gate’s Tuesday luncheon, to be attended by the film’s talent. Slated to appear were thesps Thomas Jane and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, plus director Jonathan Hensleigh, producer Gale Ann Hurd and Marvel’s Avi Arad. The film rolls out nationally April 16.

The occasion marked the first time Lions Gate has screened a film at ShoWest outside the Monday night indie showcase. Lions Gate’s Tom Ortenberg will unveil a slate that includes “Godsend” with Robert De Niro, “The Cookout” with Queen Latifah, “Beyond the Sea” with Kevin Spacey, “Final Cut” with Robin Williams and “Fierce People” with Diane Lane.

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