ShoWest centers on potential blockbusters

Can 2008 top last year? That’s the question facing theater owners who’ve gathered this week for ShoWest, which hosted keynotes from MPAA topper Dan Glickman and National Assn. of Theater Owners chief John Fithian on Tuesday.

While ‘07 hit record highs at the box office thanks largely to new installments in the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek,” “Harry Potter” and “Spider-Man” franchises — not to mention frosh entry “Transformers” — this year’s slate may not lead the biz down the same standard-setting golden path.

This summer, there will be more big titles than ever, including the next “Indiana Jones,” “Batman” and “Narnia” installments, but by and large, studios are gambling on new properties, including “Iron Man,” “Get Smart” and Will Smith’s “Hancock.”

Glickman and Fithian were all smiles during a general confab keynote that focused on much of the good (3-D evolution, tentpoles, expanding theatrical windows) as well as the bad (piracy).

First the good: Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore introduced the always-popular year-end reel, and in ‘07, a record 28 films crossed the $100 million mark. He then introduced Jeffrey Katzenberg, who offered the first public viewing of clips from DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” the company’s first digital 3-D title, which comes out in late March 2009.

Studios such as DreamWorks Animation are furiously pressuring exhibs to convert more screens to digital so that more can play 3-D titles. As of now, only about 4,600 of the country’s 39,000 screens are digital.

Next year, there will be no fewer than 10 major 3-D titles. For exhibitors, the incentive to convert is higher ticket prices.

Katzenberg said, “3-D offers a terrific premium, and since home viewing has changed, now it’s our chance. It’s our opportunity to grow admissions, not just revenue.”

Glickman, as expected, was more lobbyist than movie enthusiast, delivering such confab-typical lines as “Movies transcend politics” and touting the all-time highs the industry hit last year. But as always, the wet blanket thrown onto the party was the idea that pirates are somehow ruining the business.

Glickman did take a more inclusive stance than in years past toward the illegal Internet download problem, mentioning again and again how embracing the Web is more productive than fighting it … and that government regulation of the Internet is a terrible idea.

“We can’t have a thriving movie industry without a thriving exhibition industry,” Glickman said. “Our ability to make high-quality movies depends on everything being legal. We are in the race of our lives to keep up with consumers.”

After echoing Glickman’s enthusiasm for 2007, Fithian also gave a shout-out to the fact that windows actually expanded in 2007, rising from four months and 11 days to four months and 16 days.

“A robust theatrical window drives business,” he said emphatically.

Fithian also stuck it to everyone who claimed the business was in freefall back in 2005. “It’s like the sign that predicted ‘The end is near,’ ” he said. He then reminded everyone that moviegoing is still cheaper than most any other form of entertainment, “including bowling and laser-tag,” and that over four decades, ticket prices grew slower than inflation. Luxury cinemas and 3-D also provide added value to an industry that is recession-proof.

But even he couldn’t resist sounding the piracy bell, setting the theft pricetag at $670 million. It’s “taking money from you,” he said. “But the fight is on. We will get all the thieves. Progress is coming.”

Ironically, the event organizers were worried about the convention’s own piracy problem, escorting out several folks for recording the speeches — only to allow them to return once things were erased.

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