LAS VEGAS — Exhibitors and movie executives gathered at ShoWest last week were fretful over the fact that the moviegoing audience is expanding at an excruciatingly slow rate, despite the fact that many more movies are playing on many more screens. The movie folk may not realize it, but Las Vegas very much identifies with these frustrations. Billions of dollars are being spent to expand this citadel of glitz, and more and more visitors are streaming in. Yet the amount of money spent at the slots and gaming tables is distressingly flat. And Vegas’ bottom line depends on gambling. The intriguing question remains: Why? As Jack Valenti revealed last week, Hollywood in 1996 spent 11% more per picture on marketing (some folks think that’s conservative), yet admissions rose by only 6%. Some exhibitors here were wondering if there’s been too much attention on the “sell” and not enough on the “show.” “The studio guys spend too much time worrying about their stores and theme parks,” one grizzled theater owner from the Midwest told me.
IRONICALLY, LAS VEGAS ALSO HAS become obsessed with its “theme park” image. Drive down the Strip and you are assaulted by the flying turrets of the Excalibur, the Statue of Liberty hovering above New York-New York, the faux Versailles facades of the Monte Carlo, not to mention the pyramids, giant lions and Roman imagery. It’s hard to separate the real Vegas from a Virtual Vegas. Yet some old Vegas hands feel all this distracts from what’s really the only show in town — gambling. “We’ve got to bring showmanship back to the gaming business,” says Randy Adams, a top designer of slot machines and other gaming devices for Anchor Games, which is Vegas-based. Adams is in the vanguard of young Vegas types who are trying to revitalize that staple of the gaming business — the slot machine. Slots account for between 60 % and 80% of casino revenues, depending on the casino and the town, yet they’ve essentially looked and sounded the same for a generation. Survey a row of “slot hogs” at a typical casino and you see mostly older women who seem more stupefied than entertained, their eyes half-closed, as they feed an endless stream of coins into the machines. The companies that make slots operate not unlike movie companies. They invest in the manufacture and development of the games, then lease them to casinos and pray their game will be a winner. Adams, for one, thinks most of the slots are pathetic. “We keep turning out the same kinds of slot machines, but it’s the players who have the vote,” he says. “And if we’re not careful, they’re going to vote us out of office.” Among his new creations is Cash Ball, a towering machine that combines pinball with a slot. It’s what Adams calls a multi-event game that moves faster and yields a higher return to the player. Another Anchor game, called Rock ‘n’ Reels, looks like it was built into the side of an old Wurlitzer. It sounds that way, too. Other game designers also are rushing into the breach. A company called Casino Data Systems is testing Caribbean Stud Poker, which features a 32-bit processor, 15-inch monitor and CD-quality stereo system. Its inventor is a 33-year-old computer whiz named Steven Weiss, who is renowned for his arrogance as well as his inventiveness.
SOME FEEL WEISS IS TAKING slots too far in a high-tech direction. He’s even pitching a theater-sized super-slot in which pirate ships battle it out on a giant screen. The player who sinks a ship gets the treasure chest. “You need a Ph.D. to play Steve Weiss’ games,” one detractor says. Nonetheless, all the designers are chasing the same objectives — excitement, better visuals, enhanced sound. In short: showmanship. “We need to bring younger people back to the slots,” says Adams, a sharp young guy with a marketing background who wears a large crown of graying hair. “We have to be showmen.” Surely the movie types wandering around ShoWest would appreciate this challenge. What is loosely called “the entertainment economy” now encompasses sports, gaming, theme parks and myriad other competing activities. Movies once were the biggest show in town. Now they’re just one of many struggling to preserve a niche. After all, if you can walk into a room, sink a pirate ship and collect the treasure, why pay to see a movie?