Exhibs grapple with moviegoing dip

This year’s exhib confab is under new management and a new moniker, but the principal talking points at CinemaCon, opening today in the midst of a box office slide, are sure to center on the state of moviegoing itself.

“It’s not panic,” one distribution exec told Variety. “But people are nervous.”

CinemaCon — formerly Sho-West — gets under way in Las Vegas, its inaugural outing with the National Assn. of Theater Owners as host. But it comes at a pivotal time for NATO after last year, when Stateside box office saw record highs, thanks to first-quarter 3D phenoms “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Without similar titles to drive traffic in 2011, box office pundits are hoping that high-profile summer tentpoles will revive moviegoing habits.

But the prevailing concern now isn’t over summer’s ability to heat a cooling market, but whether moviegoing habits have irreversibly changed. Hot-button exhibitor issues such as earlier premium VOD windows and discount ticket pricing are part of the conversation on changing consumer habits.

“In this day and age, with so many ancillary avenues fighting for the leisure dollar, we have to be at the top of our game,” said CinemaCon managing director Mitch Neuhauser. “That’s really what we’re keying the conference on: What does it take?”

In hopes of broadening the confab’s scope, the National Assn. of Theater Owners broke from ShoWest

fab’s scope, the National Assn. of Theater Owners broke from ShoWest in 2008 to take over hosting duties, with this year the first for NATO to manage CinemaCon on a non-profit basis.

The move was meant to boost studio participation, as well as to entice smaller exhibs not normally in attendance. NATO’s takeover comes at a time when confab attendees (estimated to reach 5,000, according to Neuhauser, including 2,900 registered delegates) have an intense interest in reversing the current box office slide.

This year, several majors are skedded to showcase product, starting today with Paramount and DreamWorks Animation. Disney and Warner Bros. also will participate in slate presentations, along with Lionsgate. On Wednesday, Sony will screen its upcoming Kevin James starrer “Zookeeper,” which hits multiplexes on July 8.

The summer pipeline is populated with installments from major franchises like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Transformers” and “Harry Potter,” all of which will be released in 3D. The 3D format, with its higher ticket price, is unlikely to turn off fans, though some of the summer’s higher-profile 3D toons, namely, “Kung Fu Panda 2″ and “Cars 2,” may see less ducats sold in 3D with families more likely to pay for cheaper 2D tickets.

That’s a continuing trend for toons, recently highlighted by Par’s 2D-only toon “Rango,” which has cumed an animated $106 million domestically. “Rango” — the market’s first non-3D studio toon since Disney’s 2009 “The Princess and the Frog” — even skewed more toward adult auds, a demo typically more willing to pay the 3D upcharge.

Still, with 3D largely having proven itself with moviegoers over the past year, distrib and exhib execs anticipate the discussions of the format itself to take a backseat to the digital conversion of theaters, a prerequisite for 3D.

Stateside exhibs converted more than 800 theaters in January, with the digital count reaching approximately 15,450 as of Feb. 7, according to NATO. That’s good news for studios and major theater chains, though smaller exhibs are still having to grapple with how to fund the pricey conversion, and much talk on the tradeshow floor likely will be devoted to that topic.

Leading up to the conference, NATO topper John Fithian addressed premium VOD offerings, stating in a New York-hosted conference on March 17 that “moving a decreasing price point into an area of an increasing price point is a bad business decision,” referring to decreasing average ticket prices vs. premium VOD costs (Daily Variety, Friday, March 18).

Fithian’s industry address, to be given jointly on Tuesday with newly anointed MPAA head Christopher Dodd (his first public speech in the role), could revisit similar turf.

Bob Berney, prexy of theatrical distribution for FilmDistrict, expressed the importance of keeping an open dialogue with exhibitors, especially when it comes to altered theatrical windows. FilmDistrict is one of the newer additions to the distribution game, along with other companies like Relativity Media and AMC-Regal joint venture Open Road Films.

“The good news is that with (new players), I think exhibitors will feel there are more choices when looking for those home runs,” Berney said. “In that regard, I think there’s going to be some hope at the conference.”

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