Primo pix poised to pack punch

Vegas confabbers hope tentpoles and niche contenders can turn the B.O. tide

Just as Las Vegas is a town where a veneer of glitz glosses over some unpleasant realities, ShoWest has followed as a confab where contentious issues facing the film exhibition biz — including bitter wars over digital cinema, shrinking windows, battered B.O. tallies and piracy — stews at the very same time studios trot out star-studded new product for theater owners to admire.

In 2006, pros predict a sunnier ShoWest than in recent years as advances in digital cinema, a detente in the battle over shifting windows and a pipeline filled with more primo product dovetail.

“I do think that the glass is half full, not half empty,” says Motion Picture Assn. of America head Dan Glickman, who will give a ShoWest address March 14 with John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. “Even though we are in a dynamic environment, people still love the movies. We have to embrace change, but we have to work together. Change is scary, but can be very good.”

Glickman adds that, though 2005 biz slumped, the emergence of niche pics was a good step in Hollywood diversifying its product. He also says that, while 2006 looks to be the year of the franchise, the arthouse emergence will create a “movie environment that not only permits, but encourages, the tentpoles and niche films to broaden audiences that go to theaters.”

ShoWest’s annual indie night lineup this year will include pics from Miramax (“Kinky Boots”), Focus Features (“On A Clear Day”), Paramount Classics (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Sony Pictures Classics (“Friends With Money”), Fox Searchlight (“Confetti”) and Lionsgate (“Hard Candy”), while big-budget spectacles screening will include Disney and Pixar’s “Cars” and a Jeffrey Katzenberg-hosted preview of the year ahead in animation.

Warner Bros. will have the ShoWest slot this year of showing off its lineup for exhibs. The position can be a plum one with the right product, but in years past, some studios have shown up in Vegas with a flashy reel of pics that ultimately haven’t clicked: Two years ago, Paramount arrived at ShowWest with a bevy of talent in tow to pump a slate that included “Alfie,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

Warners remains in the catbird seat, however, having racked up five straight years with $1 billion grosses worldwide. This year, it will show off product that includes the latest “Superman” pic as well as the Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves starrer “The Lake House,” the Tom Hanks-produced “Ant Bully,” reimagined epic “Poseidon” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Lady in the Water,” among others.

“We just had the biggest year in out company’s history,” says Warner domestic distribution topper Dan Fellman. “And we owe it to our exhibition partners to show we’re still holding our own.”

On whether putting the studio in such a high-profile spot at a time of such high expectations for 2006, he adds: “Hey, this is the company that produced ‘Risky Business.’ There are always risks. But we feel very confident about what we will show this year. We’ve got the goods.”

Other pics unspooling will include the urban-skewing tales “Take the Lead” and “Akeelah and the Bee.”

Amid the screenings, studio execs and exhibs alike predict it will be an up year at the box office after a widely publicized decline that gave the industry Monday-morning headaches for weeks on end.

The final quarter of last year gave theater owners a trifecta of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “King Kong” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Glickman says that’s just an appetizer for such 2006 pics as “The DaVinci Code,” “Mission: Impossible III,” “Superman Returns,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Cars,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Spider-Man 3.”

Industry pros see the first quarter of 2006 as similar to last year, but feel the following two quarters will be higher, particularly in May, June and July. The question is whether all those blockbusters can play together or will step on each other’s toes in a crowded summer.

“This will be a more optimistic convention,” says Fithian of ShoWest. “The tide has turned.”

Just a few months ago, the climate couldn’t have been more turbulent.

The rift between theater owners and the majors never seemed quite as wide as in October, when the usually sleepy ShowEast confab, in Orlando, Fla., turned into a showdown over the concept of shrinking the time between a film’s traditional theatrical and DVD rollout — a development theater owners have branded a “death threat” to their business.

The issue came to a head when “Signs” helmer Shyamalan made a surprise appearance at ShowEast to show solidarity with theater owners and to take aim at Steven Soderbegh’s plans to make a series of movies with financiers Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner that would be released on all platforms simultaneously.

The seemingly esoteric windows issue even captured the attention of the consumer press, and NATO received more media requests over the topic than any other in the past two years.

So some might be predicting that ShoWest will be the next battleground, particularly since Shyamalan has been named ShoWest’s director of the year and will accept the award at the Las Vegas event’s final-night banquet.

But five months on, the once hot-button windows issue is receding to a less feverish pitch.

“The issues of collapsing windows will still be an important topic,” says Fithian. “But I do not think it’s as hot or as controversial as it was in October. The vast majority of the studios have given us very strong, private and public, assurances that sequential release works for them as a business model.”

Another factor must be that Soderbergh’s first windows-crashing effort, “Bubble,” was a bust with auds, taking in about $145,000 in business theatrically.

Fithian instead points to digital cinema as the buzz term at ShoWest this year, now that the long-gestating ambitious plans to roll out such systems are finally making their way to reality.

“The big theme of ShoWest will be digital cinema,” he adds. “The specifications are done. The revolution has begun.”

With the immediate future looking brighter, Fithian and Glickman both seem relieved as they prep their remarks. Fithian in particular has been saddled with the task of delivering streams of sobering news to NATO members while at the same time standing up to the studios on the bevy of thorny issues.

This time around at least, ShoWest is looking less like a noisy showdown.

“When you have slumps, there is a discordant amount of harping,” says Fithian. “When things are up, you don’t hear a peep.”