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A Back-to-Basics ShoWest Dims the Glitz

Movies * Industry uncertainty leads to cutting lavish promotions at the annual film exhibitors event.


LAS VEGAS — Exhibitor Mark Gramz still cracks a smile when he recalls the grand finale at the ShoWest movie exhibitors' conference here three years ago. The sumptuous dinner was hosted by Disney, which was eager to promote clips of its latest animation project, "Tarzan." When the movie teasers were over, the curtain suddenly drew up and there was Phil Collins standing before them, a microphone in hand.

Collins, who composed the songs for "Tarzan," went on to serenade nearly 3,000 exhibitors for nearly 20 minutes--all in the name of promoting the animated film. And that was just one dinner out of a week of lavish parties thrown by the studios for the exhibitors.

Ah, the good old days.

Gone for the most part now are extravagant luncheons sponsored by the studios, the major star sightings and the award show hoopla.

"This year, it's back to basics," said Gramz, vice president of Marcus Theater Corp., which owns more than 500 screens around the Midwest.

The downbeat mood at ShoWest is a symptom of last year's difficulties. With exhibitors reeling from bankruptcies, low box-office returns last year and an uncertainty about their future, it is no surprise this year's event is decidedly low-key--even in Las Vegas.

"We need to heal some wounds here and get back on track," said Jim Bramante, owner of Star Theaters in Newton, Mass., who has come to ShoWest for the past eight years. "If the business needs help, then the glitz can be held off. The non-glitz factor here is just part of the fallout."

It is a nervous time for exhibitors who are in the midst of redefining their industry. Eleven of the nation's largest theater chains were forced to declare bankruptcy after a rush to build modern megaplexes with 16 screens or more resulting in overscreening. Bankruptcy has allowed theater owners to shrink operations by getting out of leases on older, unprofitable complexes.

For years, ShoWest had been a significant venue for exhibitors to check out the latest in theater technology and concessions gimmicks and catch glimpses of the studios' upcoming product. At this year's conference, which began Monday and ended Thursday, attendance was down--3,000 registered delegates, compared to 3,454 last year.

The studios also had a difficult year because of box-office slowdowns in the summer months and September and a 3% overall drop-off in theater admissions last year. Their struggles were also evident at ShoWest; only Warner Bros. hosted a luncheon, whereas in years past almost every studio would host some kind of event. This was a year instead of private lunches and dinners.

The studios also used to troop out their top stars to awe exhibitors. But this year, only a handful of stars showed up during the week to promote some movies. The only major star sightings were scheduled to come on Thursday night, when Oscar nominees Russell Crowe (best actor for "Gladiator") and Judi Dench (best supporting actress for "Chocolat"), along with Chris Rock, Haley Joel Osment, Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock. With a kidnapping threat looming over Crowe, tight security measures were being planned, including FBI agents and private security.

Also in the past, most studios would present their "product reels," previews of upcoming releases. This year most studios passed on that, although a few full-length films were shown--two kid-friendly films, "Spy Kids," from Miramax and "Shrek" from DreamWorks, and the more adult-oriented "Heartbreakers" from MGM.

The hype surrounding digital technology is also making exhibitors jittery. Digital is everywhere, following the exhibitors around from displays at the trade show to movies being screened in digital--both "Spy Kids" and "Shrek." But major questions about digitals remain unanswered--who will pay for it to be installed and what do exhibitors have to gain from it?

The exhibitors are also haunted by some other questions: Could the advent of video on demand and large-screen televisions with sophisticated sound systems threaten the very nature of their business? Could some 20-year-old computer genius beam digital films from his home computer into his friends' computers?

So, almost like a therapy session, ShoWest held a seminar on why seeing movies on the big screen is an irreplaceable experience. Organizers invited a psychologist to explain why people, who are "social animals," enjoy theatrical moviegoing and why in-home entertainment will never replace it.

"This is not a very relaxed atmosphere," said Joe Zazzaro, head of Ultra Star Theaters in Carlsbad, Calif., who has attended ShoWest for the past 12 years. "In years past the studios' luncheons would give [the convention] more of a Hollywood feel. But this year it's a technical atmosphere and [exhibitors] are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

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