European exhibs face trying times

Cinema Expo discussions include digital cinema, piracy

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — Terrorism, war and now the SARS virus have made life tougher for tradeshow organizers.

“We keep making our numbers, but you do sit there and bite your fingernails,” said Robert Sunshine, chairman of Cinema Expo organizer Sunshine Group Worldwide. “But we won’t let the Iraqis or SARS hurt us in any way, I hope.”

Staged at the large RAI convention center here each year, Cinema Expo serves much the same purpose for European exhibs as SWG’s ShoWest and ShowEast confabs do for U.S. theater operators. The trade show offers a rare chance to grab face time with other showbiz professionals, while also serving as an important product market and a forum for discussing topical industry issues and trends.

Tracking to match last year’s 1,100-person attendance, Cinema Expo attracts theater operators and film distribs plus product vendors of concession-stand wares and other theatrical equipment. Top discussions skedded this year include the hot-button topics of digital cinema and film piracy.

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But as with all Sunshine trade shows, the emphasis will be on movie screenings staged over the course of the four-day confab, which kicks off today. Among the titles to be screened are Warner Bros.’ upcoming Nicolas Cage starrer “Matchstick Men,” helmed by Ridley Scott; MGM’s Reese Witherspoon sequel “Legally Blonde: Red, White and Blonde;” and Universal’s green goliath “Hulk.”

The pics will unspool against a moderately downbeat backdrop, with this year’s worldwide box office so far struggling to match the boffo perfs enjoyed in most territories last year. European exhibs are also undergoing some biz consolidation in the U.K., Germany and elsewhere.

But throughout Europe, as in the U.S., industryites are hopeful that summer tentpoles will bolster year-to-date numbers considerably.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Andrew Cripps, prexy of film distrib United International Pictures. “Most territories are down a bit, but people are looking to some of the big pictures that will come along in the hope they may kickstart things.”

European consolidation rumblings echo the earlier, much larger, restructurings among U.S. circuits. And like the earlier impact on ShoWest and ShowEast, the overseas trend has produced yet another headache for Cinema Expo organizers in trying to maintain show size amid a shrinking exhibition universe.

Nevertheless, Sunshine said he expects to surpass last year’s 247 booths and 24,735 square feet on the show’s busy exhibit floor. The show floor opens Tuesday afternoon.

Today’s seshes will include an update on efforts to unify engineering standards and operating protocols for digital cinema; a panel on the trend toward “day-and-date” worldwide film releasing; and a seminar on European film distribution. Distrib sesh will analyze the box office strength of Euro-produced pics outside their home markets.

U.S. execs attending the show include John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.

“We go to share information, but as much to learn as to talk,” said Fithian, who’s set to participate in the d-cinema sesh.

Joining him on that panel will be Chuck Goldwater, CEO of the studio consortium on d-cinema, Digital Cinema Initiatives.

Cinema Expo continues through Thursday.