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ShoWest Panel ponders pic pinch

LAS VEGAS — The theatrical life of a Hollywood film is shrinking because in the last six years the number of wide releases has grown at a faster rate than new screens, according to figures released at a ShoWest panel dis-cussion Wednesday.

As a result, the opening week of an average picture accounted for 32% of a film’s total theatrical gross in 1996, compared with 24% in 1990, EDI president Marcie Polier said during the discussion.

The panel, hosted by Variety and Consolidated Film Industries and moderated by Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, tackled the topic “Too Many Pictures? Too Many Screens? How Much is Too Much?” Mulling the issues were Sony Pictures releasing president Jeff Blake, Phoenix Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy, AMC Entertainment president Phil Singleton, and Polier.

EDI’s figures emphasize the “incredible pressure to open a picture,” said Blake. He added that the pressure is “squeezing out good mid-level pictures.”

“How long we play in theaters is a big issue for us,” Blake added.

Still, the mood on the panel was generally upbeat as the studio and exhibition execs agreed that the continued “megaplexing” of circuits will lead to increased choice for moviegoers and, eventually, a longer lifespan for a film.

“The future has never looked brighter,” enthused Singleton, whose AMC is leading the charge toward bigger megaplexes by building complexes with as many as 30 screens.

Megaplexes are “stimulating new business,” he said, and the studio execs on the panel applauded the trend. “I would hope you keep building theaters because the more you build, the more shelf space for us,” said Medavoy.

“No question. On the distribution side, we have never felt better about our business than right now,” Blake added. Not only have the number of screens expanded, “but I think there has been a tremendous re-emphasis on service and treating patrons better — all the things that the studio has nothing to do with but that everything depends on.”

Medavoy noted that the improvements in theater amenities are also broadening the age ranges of audiences.

But the panelists conceded that it is a mixed picture. Singleton noted that film product is still being pushed out of theaters early, adding that AMC is designing its new theaters to “accommodate Jeff’s desire to get a picture open, but we also want to hold the picture right on through video.”

Blake said he is surprised that the megaplexes haven’t lengthened the playing times of films as much as expected. He noted, however, that this is partly because of the pressure on studios to maximize the opening weekends.

“The pressure to open has gotten so great that we find megaplexes are requesting three or four prints … and they can produce such gigantic grosses, it’s almost impossible to say no.”

Polier said EDI’s figures showed that, while the number of domestic screens rose 25% in six years (to 29,690), the number of wide releases grew 29% over the same time (to 155).

That helped lift admissions 25% to 1.316 billion, driving a 31% growth in box office revenue to $5.8 billion, she said. But the number of admissions per film declined about 7% to 7.83 million; consequently, the average gross per wide release fell 2% to $34.6 million (the decline in the gross is alleviated by ticket price increases).

“When you look at these trends, they’re going down a bit, even though the overall business is up and screens are up,” Polier said. “It leads us to ask questions about the profitability” of the industry, she added.

These trends have helped create a huge increase in marketing costs as well as a shift by the majors toward “event” pictures at the expense of more serious-themed films, the Hollywood execs on the panel noted.

“The strategy of just making event pictures … is a wrong strategy,” Medavoy warned, adding that it could lead to problems for a studio in the future.

Afternoon workshops also sponsored by Consolidated Film Industries and Variety focused on engineering and technical aspects of film exhibition.

One of the four concurrent sessions involved the growth of large-format pictures such as Imax, whose 3-D pics have found success within thriving multiplexes in New York and Irvine. Execs said more dramatic Imax features are in the works, including some from existing agreements with Sony and a recent deal for an Imax version of a “Star Trek.”

A separate panel involved problems of inconsistent sound quality, volume and dynamic range between trailers and features and solutions for bleed-through of sound from adjacent auditoriums.

Other workshops discussed whether trailers tell too much or whether they sell pictures well enough, and films’ ever-increasing reliance on special effects.

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