But windows, 3D remain hot-button issues between exhibs and distribs

Tensions between the studios and theater owners have eased up, NATO chief John Fithian said Thursday, but exhibs and distribs are still confronting a number of contentious issues in their relationship, including the narrowing of release windows, who pays for 3D glasses and how many 3D pics the marketplace can accommodate.

Fithian, speaking at the Gabelli Movie & Broadcasting conference in New York, touted gains for both realms, predicting that overall box office and attendance would be up in 2012. B.O. has seen a double-digit increase so far this year.

But concerns over windows and 3D spending remain front and center for exhibs.

Greg Marcus, CEO of the Marcus Corp., which operates movie theaters and hotels, said studios are still pushing too hard on windows. “As you shorten windows, you move people to other markets. Studios have to decide if they want a movie theater business or not,” he said. “If they keep moving people into other windows, we will have a problem, and at some point, it will cause an irreparable problem.”

Paying for 3D glasses is also a bone of contention. Studios pay for them now, but Sony Pictures, for one, has said it wants to stop. Exhibs, however, don’t plan on shouldering the cost.

Michael Lewis, CEO of RealD, which makes 3D glasses — 400 million pairs a year — said he expects the two sides will work it out. Studios and exhibitors are “tied at the hip, and there is a lot of money to be made,” he said.

Many execs at the confab said the studios should make fewer 3D movies, and focus on higher-quality output rather than volume.

The daylong Gabelli confab also explored the expansion of Imax’s plex footprint, the state of in-theater advertising and the growth prospects for live theater events:

•Imax CEO Rich Gelfond said the company is talking with Regal Entertainment, the nation’s largest exhibitor, about rolling out second Imax screens for the chain’s theaters. The format has become a showcase for many of Hollywood’s tentpoles, with more pics being remastered for release in the format in conjunction with their primary rollout in other theaters.

Imax, which doesn’t have much debt, sees doubling down with additional theaters as a potentially good way to spend its cash.

“We haven’t done it yet because there haven’t been enough films, but maybe now we can address it,” Gelfond said Thursday.

Imax said “Titanic” will come out in Imax format for a limited engagement in the U.S. and overseas simultaneous with its April 4 digital re-release. The company also announced a deal to open the first Imax theaters in Pakistan.

•National Cinemedia CEO Kurt Hall said in-theater advertising is doing OK but that it could be better if his company joined forces with Screenvision, its smaller rival owned by Shamrock Capital with Carmike a minority investor. There’s frequent speculation about a possible combination that would give the business more uniformity and more muscle.

Hall said the market turned rocky during the second half of last year and continues to be challenging. He said he’d like to get to the point where National Cinemedia inventory is 60% sold at the start of the year — it was 50% sold this year — to lessen reliance on the volatile scatter market.

•Live events at theaters remain a fraction of total business. Hall and Carmike CEO David Passman agreed that one-off events are too expensive to market and advertise and that more series are needed to get the biz off the ground.

“You cannot spend $25 million promoting and advertising” a concert with 300 seats and $10 ticket price, Passman said, “whether it’s a live concert, opera, even a speaker series.”

But Passman said that changes “if every Tuesday you know it will be there. … It’s not the quality of the events we do, but do people know it’s there?”

Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk said he thinks alternative content in theaters could be “a billion-dollar business on a worldwide basis.”

Cinedigm, among its other businesses, is looking to fill a middle ground in the space by acquiring indie films and other content to show on a regular basis in theaters and ultimately pipe into people’s homes, generating ancillary revenue that it will split with exhibtors.

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