Are stars burned out?

Studios question ShoWest promo ops

What can $5 million buy you in Vegas?

That’s the estimated coin some studios have spent on recent splashy, star-studded presentations at ShoWest, the annual exhib confab in Las Vegas. But judging by this year’s lineup, there’s a lot of thinking about whether the cost justifies the return.

Where once it was a given that all the studios would participate with lavish banquets and entertainment, in recent years only a couple have pulled out all of the stops.

With marketing budgets getting fine-tooth scrutiny, the cost of shuttling in big-name stars and execs and striking a film product reel — which can run into the millions of dollars — may not be getting enough bang for the buck.

“They have fallen victim to the same trend that awards shows have fallen to,” says DreamWorks marketing topper Terry Press. “When you can see stars 24/7 on television, a bunch of celebs sitting on a dais does not have the same glamour as it once did. For a mom and pop exhibitor, this was the closest they could get to a movie star. Now, we know too much about movie stars.”

ShoWest once was embraced by studios as a podium from which they could woo exhibitors with their summer product. Now they’re content to either let the movies speak for themselves or to show their product reels to exhibs in private hotel suites. The studios that spend heavily on presentations have P.R. in mind.

“What was once a distribution convention is more of a marketing platform because, as the theater circuits consolidate, we know who we do business with,” Press says. “But when you screen to the exbibition community, the exhibitor turns and talks to the media. What you’re doing is investing a third party in your movie.”

At this week’s confab, Warner Bros. will bring in Wolfgang Petersen, Bryan Singer and M. Night Shyamalan to show clips from “Poseidon,” “Superman Returns” and “The Lady in the Water,” respectively. Also on hand will be the new Man of Steel, Brandon Routh, and Natalie Portman, who stars in “V for Vendetta,” which opens the day after her appearance.

In addition, Disney/Pixar will screen “Cars” on Tuesday night and DreamWorks will show “Over the Hedge” on Thursday morning.

The only other major studio picture on deck is New Line’s “Take the Lead,” a drama starring Antonio Banderas as a dance teacher in an inner-city school.

But even from a marketing level, the results of ShoWest are mixed.

Last year, 20th Century Fox brought in George Lucas to show the first reel of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” and trotted out the stars of “Fantastic Four.” The two movies went on to become hits.

But in 2004, when Paramount crammed its luncheon dais with two dozen celebrities, including Nicole Kidman, Nicolas Cage, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Meryl Streep, it didn’t seem to improve the fortunes of films such as “The Stepford Wives,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “The Weather Man.” Nor did it help Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen keep their jobs.

Rather than impress the industry, the moviestar overkill drew guffaws from competitors. “Everybody wondered what the hell that was,” says a marketing exec at a competing studio. “For a lot of people it was a sign of everything that was wrong with the Sherry Lansing regime.”

The screenings don’t always work, either. In 2001, when Disney showed off “Atlantis” while DreamWorks screened “Shrek,” those leaving Las Vegas probably had only a small headstart on others in knowing one pic would work and the other wouldn’t.

Still, ShoWest can help calm exhibitors’ anxieties.

Last year the biggest draw for the consumer media was an onstage appearance by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for Fox’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” just as reports were spreading in the tabloids that the thesps had hooked up on the set. The message was clear: They would be available to promote the movie.

As a marketer for a rival studio says, “It’s a fairly public display to the industry that two big stars, rumored to be sleeping together, are still going to come out to promote their movie.”

And no one is declaring ShoWest irrelevant. What has happened, veterans of ShoWest say, is that studios have become more discerning. In 2004, Sony was able to address the curiosity about its “Spider-Man” sequel by reassuring exhibs with a lavish stage show featuring a clip, a dangling Spidey and appearances by stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.

“We had a lot of fun doing the ‘Spider-Man’ thing,” says Jeff Blake, Sony’s chair for worldwide marketing and distrib. “If you feel like you have something appropriate, it can be very effective.”