Bigger not better

Mancuso berates biz in ShoWest keynote

LAS VEGAS — Likening them to Thelma and Louise on their death run, MGM chairman Frank Mancuso blamed Hollywood studios and nationwide exhibitors for driving the industry to a dangerous precipice with their blind determination to build more theaters and release more movies.

“We’ve lost our sense of restraint, continually overproducing and overbuilding,” Mancuso told exhibitors in his keynote address during NATO ShoWest at Bally’s Hotel. “Like Thelma and Louise, we’re heading for a cliff. But will we stop before we go over the edge?”

As a remedy, Mancuso offered a five-point plan, including cutting back on production and a joint industry campaign with studios and exhibitors to bring the public back into the theaters.

He was introduced to the approximately 600 exhibitors by Bill Kartozian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who praised Mancuso’s turnaround of MGM and lightheartedly called him a “man, who while at Paramount, made me rich.” Despite the harsh appraisal of the industry, the speech was well received by the crowd.

More pics, higher budgets

Pointing to the “cluttered market” that has developed over the last few years as studios have released more films each year, Mancuso mentioned that 1997 will see 14 more pics released than 1996. He also cited production costs that have risen 36% over the last five years and marketing costs that have gone up 48%.

“Studio executives are reaching for relief because supposedly at least 12 movies in 1997 will have production budgets in excess of $100 million,” he said. “But in an average year, only 10 movies top that figure at the domestic box office. I sure hope this won’t be an average year.”

On the exhibition side, Mancuso said theater owners have sliced up the moviegoing audience pie into “smaller slivers” with the constant need to build new screens.

“When most major exhibitors build new theaters and build them within shouting distance of one another, and when most studios release event movies and do it in the same competitive period, they neutralize the impact of what could have been market-leading strategies,” Mancuso said.

In the San Fernando Valley over the past three years, Mancuso said, the number of screens has grown nearly 80%, yet box office has moved up only 16%. Nationwide, admissions were up from last year, but were almost identical in 1995 to their level in 1989, while the number of screens across the country grew three times as quickly.

Mancuso offered five answers for a solution to the overexpansion, starting with a severe cutback on the number of films that studios release. “Studios should make fewer movies and concentrate on quality more than on quantity,” he said, referring to the “imaginary need” to constantly keep the distribution pipeline filled.

Second, Mancuso championed the idea of a more orderly 12-month release pattern, a theme that had been echoed throughout the day at various panels and discussions. He mentioned such pics as “Star Wars,” “Get Shorty” and “The Birdcage” as three that were released at periods of the year that have been traditionally slow. “Studios must distribute pictures throughout the year, spreading our schedules across all 12 months to help reduce the clutter,” he said. “Film fans don’t lose interest in movies just because it’s early February or late September.”

Follow instincts, not formulas

Third, Mancuso called on studios to “follow our instinct, not a formula,” when it comes to creating stories in the movies.

Fourth, he urged exhibitors to build new theaters in “underserved towns and neighborhoods, instead of overbuilding in cities already saturated with screens.”

Finally, Mancuso proposed a joint industry campaign with the Motion Picture Assn. of America and NATO to promote auds to buy tickets. He referred to the “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” campaigns as examples that a movie push might emulate, even coming up with a new title: “The Movies: There’s No Place Like It at Home.”

“With such a campaign, we can grow our business; we can recapture the lost patron’s imagination, we can increase the number of people who go to the movies and love doing it,” Mancuso said.

Loeks lauded

Preceding Mancuso’s remarks, Barrie Lawson Loeks, chairman of Sony/Loews Theaters, received the Robert W. Selig ShoWester of the Year Award.

Stephen A. Gilula, president of Landmark Theaters, singled her out in his introduction for building theaters in underserved areas through her partnership with Magic Johnson and Sony Theaters. He also pointed to Star Theaters, headed by Jim Loeks and Barrie Lawson Loeks, which built a 6,000-seat, 20-screen complex in Detroit.

Barrie Loeks praised the deal with Johnson, which recently announced plans for 13 more locations around the country in underprivileged areas. “I’ve had a tremendous amount of help,” she said on getting the award. She singled out her husband and co-chair Jim Loeks, “whose innovative ideas make me look good,” as well as “the people who run our theaters.”:

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