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Theater Owners Bask in Spotlight

Movies: Production, construction records are being set, convention-goers are told. But studio chief urges restraint.


On the heels of the biggest February for movies ever, euphoria reigned this week at ShoWest, the 23rd annual convention of theater owners and movie business folk that convened in Las Vegas on Monday night.

"Year after year, records are being broken," said Alfredo Pourailly, chairman of the Peruvian, Chilean and Argentine division of the Texas-based Cinemark USA theater chain. "Cable TV, VCRs--the ghosts of the past--are gone."

Yet keynote speaker MGM Chairman Frank Mancuso cautioned that between 1990 and 1995, the number of new screens and studio releases grew at a far brisker pace than the number of admissions. Production costs soared 36% and marketing 48%. Hollywood must either find ways to expand the market or cut back on its spending, he said.

"We've lost our sense of restraint," Mancuso said, "continually overproducing and overbuilding. Like Thelma and Louise, we're heading for a cliff."

None of the 3,400 exhibitors and distributors in attendance disagreed with Mancuso's call for an orderly 12-month-a-year release pattern to reduce marketplace clutter.

Films like "The Birdcage" and "Get Shorty" did well in off-peak periods, they note. And, with less competition, marketing costs go down since it's easier for a picture to stand out.

Costs are getting out of hand, agreed the studio marketing chiefs participating in Tuesday morning's Movies and the Media seminar. The price of promoting major movies is now considerably more than the $11 million it took to open "GoldenEye" in 1995, said MGM's Gerry Rich. "We're all trying to outshoot each other and the message is getting lost, he said.

New Line's Mitch Goldman took aim at theater owners for cutting the movie experience with commercialism. "If you were really concerned about selling more tickets," he said to Cineplex Odeon executive vice president Howard Lichtman, "you wouldn't be running Coca-Cola commercials [before the featured film]."

Perhaps the dominant topic of the week was the exponential growth of movie screens, often within close proximity of one another. While megaplexes increase attendance among frequent moviegoers and bolster foreign revenues, put too many too close together and they'll cannibalize one another.

William Kartozian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, hit home that point, alluding to the 52 screens built by two competing companies 100 yards from each other in Ontario.

"Kartozian's first law of exhibition is 'Thou shalt not Ontario one another,' " he said.

Constructing state-of-the-art theaters is increasingly expensive, he said. And the price of tickets has not kept pace.

"Nationwide, an average family spends $26.27, including concessions, for a night at the movies," he said. "That compares with $68 for the circus; $103.88 for a classical concert; $144 for a rock concert; and $182.82 for live theater. It's the least expensive spectator sport around."

Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti said Tuesday that the average cost of making and marketing a film in 1996 was nearly $60 million--$39.8 million in negative costs and an added $19.8 million to promote it, he said. On the positive side, box office revenues were at an all-time high of $5.912 billion, a jump of 7.6% from the year before.

During this so-called year of the independents, Valenti took on the critics who scoff at mainstream Hollywood fare.

"A studio film is always a grungy obesity pandering to the 'masses,' while tiny budget films seem to be divinely delivered like Athena springing full-blown form the forehead of Zeus," he said in his address at Bally's Hotel.

"That elitism . . . arises from Jean-Luc Godard's famous indictment of the rabble: 'When a truly great film becomes commercially successful, it is the result of a misunderstanding."'

Valenti noted that "studio films are the engine driving the world marketplace. While I glory in the arrival of young talent, independent filmmakers are like minor leaguers, preparing for the New York Yankees or Baltimore Orioles--the Big Show. Making a movie for $20 and two cigar boxes, they get $20 million the next time out."

Sony Pictures Entertainment profiled its stars--constellations of them, in fact. Alex Trebek, host of the corporate-owned "Jeopardy," emceed the proceedings. Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Uma Thurman, Danny De Vito, Cuba Gooding Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Alicia Silverstone, Antonio Banderas, Wolfgang Peterson, and Paul Verhoeven, among others, took turns at the mike.

"I want to thank my mother. . . . and God--I want to thank God for my mother," said "My Best Friend's Wedding" star Roberts, pretending she was accepting an Oscar. "I spent 7 1/2 weeks in South America shooting this film--and couldn't wait to get back to South Central," "Anaconda's" Ice Cube said. "Old Friends"' Nicholson also weighed in: "I just want reiterate what Tommy Lee Jones had to say," said the actor--a reference to the fact that Jones couldn't get a word in edgewise alongside his "Men in Black" co-star Will Smith.

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