Exhibs hit highway

The panel discussion Thursday at NATO/ShoWest was portentously titled “Theatrical Exhibition in the 21st Century: Will Movie Theatres Crash on the Information Superhighway.” But it was such mundane issues as physical maintenance, concession stands and the upbeat commercial diagnosis for filmgoing that stole center stage.

Delegates anticipating futuristic musings from Turner Broadcasting president and keynote speaker Ted Turner had to settle for some less than piercing observations:

  • Turner announced that the so-called superhighway was “no threat to a well-run industry,” and “people like to get out of their homes;”

  • He cited crime in the streets as the No. 1 factor that should be of concern to exhibitors;

  • And he added that a 500-channel universe would have greater impact on homevideo, because it was truly a direct competitor.

Ted gets religious

Turner was nonetheless a crowd pleaser, with his average Joe stance and humorous references to film lore. Of his ill-fated tenure as owner of MGM, he averred, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be without a studio again.” With his acquisition of New Line and Castle Rock, Turner assured delegates his company planned to double its commitment to production and provide them with first-class entertainment.

NATO chairman and panel moderator William Kartozian intro’d the discussion by positioning the superhighway as the latest potential dragon slayer of the theatrical marketplace.

It allowed the panel to focus on practicalities in facing this new challenger , and to present game plans.

Cineplex Odeon CEO Allen Karp noted that rather than be threatened by the presence of a newly empowered television set offering 10 times the options in a plugged-in future, the motion picture industry should be heartened that so many options logically require more in the way of product.

Citing Universal’s 1982 premiere window pay-per-view experiment with “The Pirates of Penzance,” MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock shrugged and said, “Why would anyone want to duplicate a mistake?” He noted that while overall theatrical revenues have risen, their share is just 20% of the entertainment pie. That proportion is pretty consistent, Pollock noted, and reinforced the importance of theatrical exposure for products before they hit the infopike.

Other panelists — Loews Theatres chairman Barrie Lawson-Loeks and UA Theatres president Peter Warzel — emphasized the great strides being made in the moviegoing experience, ranging from elaborate digital sound systems to cappuccino bars. Lawson-Loeks said going to the movies is now a completely different experience than it was just a decade ago.

Despite the advances, Cineplex Odeon’s Karp said a “perception” problem persists. He cited as a dangerous myth NATO Star of the Century Harrison Ford’s comments referring to sticky floors at theaters.

Arnold Kopelson, producer of “The Fugitive” and a 1994 NATO honoree, agreed that there is a perception problem. However, he noted that the motion picture industry doesn’t operate with enough input from the consumer. He also believes that the manufacturer (studios, filmmakers) and retailer (exhibitors) do not interact often enough.

Through it all, Turner remained relatively mum, though an attentive listener. He suggested an amusing cross-promotion in which theater owners might implore patrons to be quiet in the auditorium but go to a ballgame to let off steam.

The encroaching technology popped up only once, when an audience member inquired about the possibilities of digital transmission of features in theaters in the future. Both Pollock and Lawson-Loeks cited experiments and research, but agreed that the prospect was far from immediate. Hurdles include finding an economic way of retro-fitting existing sites, and radically improving digital transmission’s image quality.

A considerably more heated debate ensued on the issue of on-screen ads prior to feature screenings. The only agreement in the area was the importance of film trailers.

Though Kartozian concluded that the information superhighway posed no threat to moviegoing, there was an underlying sense that participants and listeners remained acutely paranoid about the future.

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