Summer films light up exhibitors’ hopes

Hot prospects for deja boom

What: ShoWest
When: Today thru Thursday
Where: Bally’s & Paris, Las Vegas
Sked: International Day (today), ShoWesters Honors & Opening Day Fete (Tuesday), Breakout Perf & Producing Honors (Wednesday), Final Night Banquet & Awards Ceremony (Thursday)

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“Radical,” “misguided” and “doom.”

Just a year ago, when such words rang out during speeches at ShoWest, the annual confab sounded more like a U.N. Security Council meeting than a chance for Hollywood studios to trot out summer pics and stars for movie theater owners.

In 2006 a palpable sense of contention was in the air over a number of hot-button issues that both sides viewed as endangering an already fragile marketplace. Particularly thorny was the shrinking window between a film’s theatrical and DVD release, and also what exhibs saw as inferior product flowing from the studios, which resulted in another year of declining B.O.

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Just prior to ShoWest 2006, new data revealed that global box office was down 9% and that U.S. attendance shrank for the third straight year.

As a result, major studios felt that they needed to realistically embrace alternate ways to make money by exploiting ancillary markets, like DVDs and videogames, while exhibs worried they were being abandoned and made a unified stance to keep their distinct theatrical release window intact.

This March, it’s a more confident marketplace. The windows issue has lost much of its heat after the studios assured theater chains that, while the time between a film’s theatrical and DVD life could be shorter, they won’t collapse the windows completely into a simultaneous release for consumers.

Another big change from a year ago is that the business forecast now is bullish.

Because of the rosier box office picture, Las Vegas should be more freewheeling.

“We’re pleased with the relative calm in the short term,” says John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theater Owners from his Washington, D.C., office as he preps an annual address he’ll be giving Tuesday along with Dan Glickman, prexy and CEO of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “I don’t think they’ll be anything hugely dramatic.”

But don’t count on a love-in just yet.

Although the windows issue and questions over the implementation of digital cinema have progressed significantly, the landscape still has some backroom business to iron out.

One pesky topic that’s likely to be addressed during ShoWest revolves around cigarette smoking onscreen, insiders say.

Pressure from the American Cancer Society as well as other antismoking activism orgs has been gathering steam lately as they criticize G- or PG-13-rated movies that appeal to kids and yet feature characters who light up.

Studios have been forced to make some sort of accommodations in this arena. And any movement is sure to be a story that could potentially grab consumer headlines out of the trade confab.

Another issue that will come into focus will be the ratings system itself.

NATO and the MPAA have been working together this year to reform and demystify the process, perhaps not coincidentally in the wake of Kirby Dick’s IFC docu “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” which takes direct aim at the ratings system for being shrouded in secrecy and lacking in accountability.

ShoWest looks to be the unveiling place for the next step in a joint campaign between NATO and the MPAA after the orgs began meeting with indie filmmakers, producers and specialty arm execs earlier this year.

Glickman has been a proponent of wider acceptance of the NC-17 rating as a more accepted, nonstigmatizing rating for edgier pics.

After the ratings issues were brought up at Sundance, NATO and the MPAA were caught off guard by the potency of the news, people close to the orgs say.

The story, of course, was widely played up in the consumer press. But the orgs are quick to point out that the ratings system is not under any type of major overhaul, that it’s just being tweaked.

Specific rule revisions could be outlined in the orgs’ new campaign to make the ratings more “user-friendly” and “transparent” for parents and filmmakers.

One outside criticism that will not be addressed is the anonymity of the ratings board. Instead, the MPAA’s Classification & Rating Administration will describe the demographic makeup of the board, which is composed of parents.

MPAA and NATO also will be designating additional people to an appeals board whose members don’t come from their orgs, and the two groups will throw a bone to filmmakers by allowing them to reference similar scenes in other movies to illustrate their arguments.

However, talk should be directed more at the actual product being previewed by studios since the summer sked is being touted as one of the biggest ever for Hollywood, and expectations are riding high.

“There has been a whirlwind of change since new technologies have emerged,” says Glickman. “(Last year) was bullish after the decline of 2005. And I don’t like to project, but at first glance, this should be a very positive year in terms of new films.”

Glickman says that 2005’s poor results could have, in part, been due to “macroeconomic factors” in the international marketplace, including terrorism. “My educated guess,” he adds, “is that 2007 will be bigger than last year. The last time we saw a year with so many sequels, which was 2002, it was pretty big.”

Reels, of course, will have to live up to expectations as studios show off footage and pump pics at the Vegas confab.

Just a year after exhibs chastised the studios for providing them with underwhelming film fare, this summer will be the season of new pics in the “Harry Potter,” “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises.

Other sequels with high expectations include “Evan Almighty,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Rush Hour 3.”

It’s not all sequels. At least one potential franchise takes to the launchpad when “The Simpsons Movie” opens worldwide in July.

Only question is whether the season will be too crowded.

Pics skedded to preem include Paramount’s “Disturbia,” Picturehouse’s “El Cantante” and Rogue Pictures’ “Hot Fuzz.”

Headlines could be made by the raft of summer product that Hollywood has planned, which is prompting studio execs to boldly predict that 2007 will be an off-the-charts season for the movies worldwide.

ShoWest kicks off each year with International Day before the sparks really fly, but this time could potentially see the foreigners ringing the alarm bell first.

Digital cinema has made significant headway in the States, but the questions in Europe over who will pay for the implementation of systems and how they will roll out are still nascent. Nonetheless, exhibs there feel d-cinema is essential to continue the growth of the industry.

Today, execs from Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, AccessIT Media Services Group, Deluxe Digital Media, Arts Alliance Media, Technicolor, Odeon, Eclair and Real D are skedded to debate the issue of who will foot the bill.

D-cinema should get further attention when UNIC prexy Ad Weststrate presents his address, and Paramount Pictures Intl. prexy Andrew Cripps also delivers a seminar on the state of the industry abroad.