Jumping out of windows

Exhibs, helmers dig against shifts in distribution

ShowEast and Orlando were bracing for Hurricane Wilma, but it’s the stormy debate over the ever-shrinking distribution window that’s likely to cut a wide swath through this year’s confab.

The sticking point between theater owners and studios could turn ShowEast — which can seem downright sleepy compared with the larger ShoWest in Las Vegas — into a tempest.

Past ShowEast gatherings have touched on such issues as piracy and the costs of implementing digital cinema, but the windows debate is likely to take center stage at this year’s Oct. 24-27 event — with angry exhibs looking to shore up their opposition.

When Steven Soderbergh in April announced his teaming with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner‘s 2929 Entertainment to roll out six pics simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on HDNet, an industrywide debate broke out.

The skirmish recently spread to the Directors Guild of America, where a cadre of helmers, including M. Night Shyamalan, is vocally lining up against such plans.

National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian has called any window-shifting schemes a “death threat” to the theatrical movie biz. And he chastised Walt Disney topper Bob Iger for telling Wall Streeters there is a “need to compress” the theatrical window. The Disney exec then said the Mouse House has no plans to open its windows to change.

It remains to be seen whether ShowEast will prove a showdown, or if studio brass interested in shrinking windows will hold their tongues while in the midst of the theater owners.

At the confab, Fithian is putting on a unified front with MPAA topper Dan Glickman on Oct. 25 to give a presentation titled “Preserving the Movie Marketplace: What’s Being Done to Improve the State of the Industry,” and the hot-potato windows issue is sure to be addressed.

The two orgs don’t customarily present together at the confab, but they were asked to do so this year by ShowEast brass, suggesting there are bigger fish to fry these days than window-shattering, like how serious continued reports of slumping B.O. really are.

Presentation is expected to include, in part, reassurance to exhibs that the dip is being overanalyzed and is due to cyclical factors, not any ongoing drop in aud interest.

Meanwhile, digital cinema — a sore spot in the past, as exhibs and distribs fought over who would foot the bill for the expensive overhauling of theaters — will take a new turn, as the studios unveil plans to fund the systems.

After Digital Cinema Initiative — a joint venture set up by the seven major studios to promote the nascent technology — finally unveiled a technical spec for the studios to follow after consuming 3½ years and $8.4 million, Fox and Disney began to fund d-cinema systems in the U.S. and Canada. Other studios are expected to follow, and those deals could emerge at ShowEast.

Another hot topic is expected to be digital 3-D, as Disney shows off its “Chicken Little” to exhibs, who are eager to keep auds’ attention on the bigscreen.

At least on that front, both exhibs and studios are hoping for a little rain.

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