Super-sized send-off

Closing night brings out big stars and big media

After a week filled with talk of digital upgrades and better methods of dispensing popcorn butter, some 3,500 exhibs will file into the massive ballroom at Las Vegas’ Paris Hotel and Casino tonight, hungry for a taste of Hollywood glamour.

They’ll find it, and then some.

ShoWest’s final-night fete, formerly a last-minute staging ground for Oscar campaigns, has been transformed into an event packed with pre-summer sizzle.

It’s at once a quasi-awards show and a super-sized press junket. There will be an abundance of star power and a fully stocked red carpet, for the benefit of both exhibs and the hordes of attending media, who’ll bag big names and sexy B-roll.

And nobody will seem to mind that the celebs on the dais have blown into Sin City as much to accept their honors as to generate buzz for their upcoming pics.

“The dinner has really gotten more popular over the past five to six years,” says Adam Jordan, supervising producer at “Access Hollywood,” whose hosts Billy Bush and Shaun Robinson will emcee tonight’s gala. “It’s become the one event that everyone goes to.”

There will be 10 trophies given out after the plates have been cleared. Those making their way to the podium range from A-list stars such as Matt Damon (male star of the year), relative newcomers like Rachel McAdams (supporting actress of the year) and Jessica Biel (female star of tomorrow) as well as a tribute to George Lucas and his “Star Wars” franchise (galactic achievement award).

While a ShoWest statue won’t replace an Oscar on anyone’s mantel, celebs are more than happy to hop out to the desert for the night to pick up their hardware.

“It’s become a media event,” says Jeff Blake, vice chairman at Sony. “If you’ve got something to show, this is a great place to get the word out.”

“We take the approach that the movie is the star,” adds Tony Sella, co-prexy of domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox. “Talent is extremely cooperative. You don’t have to twist their arm to get them to go there.”

Last year, Blake and Sella saw films they spotlighted at ShoWest go on to become B.O. behemoths. They had other pics that previewed in Vegas develop into unexpected winners.

For “The Day After Tomorrow,” Sella and his Fox team cut the ballroom in half and turned it into a movie theater, showing seven never-before-seen minutes of the film. The pic, which opened on Memorial Day weekend to more than $100 million, went on to gross $186 million domestically.

Even Fox’s less pricey 2004 titles — “Garfield” and “Dodgeball” — were promoted at ShoWest (Ben Stiller made an appearance for the latter) and ended up doing much better at the box office than some would have projected.

It’s tough to say if the studio’s presentation at ShoWest made a difference, but $75 million for “Garfield” and $114 million for “Dodgeball” means the marketing team got the word out — in some form or another.

As for Sony, the studio is hoping that Wednesday’s “Stealth” preview reel will generate the same kind of buzz that the conglom got last year for “Spider-Man 2,” which grossed a tidy $373 million domestically. (Just to make sure exhibs are aware of the Jamie Foxx pic, which opens July 29, helmer Rob Cohen will be picking up a director of the year award tonight as well.)

Jordan promises this year’s dinner will be shorter than in years past, when it would often run longer than the Oscars.

“With the dinner lasting over three hours, I think one of the big concerns was how to keep it entertaining. This year, we’re going to try and keep it more efficient,” he says.

Exhibitors probably won’t mind if the dinner runs long. Especially for representatives from the smaller chains in rural America, this is a rare opportunity to catch an in-person glimpse of the stars they’re banking on to fill their theaters this summer.

“ShoWest was created to make exhibitors feel like they were on the inside, that they were part of the movie biz,” says Marcie Polier, the founder of the box office tracking firm that would eventually become Nielsen EDI, and a regular at ShoWests in the 1980s and mid-’90s before retiring seven years ago. “The showmanship was geared toward that. The closing-night dinner was always a big deal.”

But it’s not just exhibitors that the studios are trying to impress at the wrap-up soiree. The global press comes out along with the stars to grab some time with the talent. Shows like “Access Hollywood” will provide plenty of coverage to their TV audience — even if the majority of those viewers don’t know what ShoWest is.

“I think viewers are interested in inside Hollywood stuff,” Jordan notes. “Viewers want to see stars.”

Jordan promises that Jennifer Aniston — who’s set to receive the female star of the year trophy tonight – will talk publicly for the first time about her breakup with Brad Pitt.

“We’re going to be respectful but there’s an understanding Jennifer is prepared to answer those questions,” Jordan says. “As a news show, we have a right to ask. We’ve spoken to Jennifer’s publicist and they say it’s not a problem.”

“Access,” which is taking over ShoWest hosting duties from “Entertainment Tonight,” is sponsoring the reel of upcoming films that plays in the hotel rooms of each attendee and on giant video screens on the convention floor.

And to think it all started so modestly for ShoWest, when a few hundred exhibitors first gathered in San Diego in 1975 to talk about the business.

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