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Getting top billing: The blame game

Studios downplay the box-office slump, but theater owners at ShoWest attribute it to bad movies.

March 15, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — "Got Milk?" helped sell dairy products. Now Hollywood is considering a branding campaign of its own. Would "Movies: Just like DVDs, but Larger," be out of the question?

Dan Glickman, who now runs the Motion Picture Assn. of America said that when he was U.S. Agriculture Secretary the agency's businesses benefited from such promotional campaigns as "Got Milk?," "Pork: The Other White Meat" and "Beef: It's What's for Dinner."

And after coming off three straight years of declining admissions, the movie studios' trade organization said Tuesday it has launched a consumer research study that may lead to new public service announcements geared at invigorating box-office receipts.

"Not to suggest that movies are like pork chops," Glickman said as he was addressing ShoWest, this week's annual gathering of theater owners. "But those campaigns were done because the market sales and volumes of individual consumer brands were falling, and this reversed the trend."

Organizers of the annual convention have tried their best to steer the trade show away from a post-mortem on declining admissions and toward a celebration of the movie business. But no matter how many panel discussions were presented on new digital cinemas or the booming Korean market, the convention inevitably was reduced to figuring out how to get more butts in U.S. theaters.

Although many studio representatives and exhibitors dismissed 2005's returns -- domestic box office was down nearly 6% and overseas ticket sales fell 9% from the previous year -- as little more than a statistical blip, the ShoWest corridors and meeting halls were filled with finger-pointing over the weak performance.

Theater owners blamed Hollywood for making inferior (and overly long) movies, studios worried that theaters were turning the multiplex (with its barrage of pre-show commercials) into as much of an ordeal as an escape. In an attempt to distance the ShoWest convention from 2005's weak returns, the MPAA released its financial analysis of the movie business a week before the trade show began; traditionally, the box-office figures are trumpeted as the convention kicks off.

"Everyone knows how to sum up box office in 2005. It was down," Glickman said Tuesday. "This is not breaking news. What is important in 2006 is how we respond to the changing marketplace."

That marketplace is now filled with state-of-the-art home theater systems, DVDs that cost but a few dollars and are sometimes available just weeks after a film's theatrical debut, and any number of electronic devices grabbing the precious free time of Hollywood's most important audience, teenage boys.

Against that backdrop, some theater owners said, the studios in 2005 released a slate of movies -- anyone remember "Son of the Mask," "The Honeymooners" and "XXX: State of the Union?" -- that repeatedly failed to generate audience interest.

"There are some movies that I said, 'Even if you could see it for free, you wouldn't,' " said Peter Brown, the chairman of AMC Entertainment, which operates more than 5,600 screens.

The movie studios promised its upcoming releases would reverse the slide, and will spend the week trying to convince theater owners its word is good. Disney showed ShoWest guests its animated movie "Cars"; DreamWorks is scheduled to preview its animated film "Over the Hedge"; Paramount previewed two clips from the new "Mission: Impossible" sequel.

Former Vice President Al Gore was also in attendance to drum up interest in his new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

His voice booming as he strode inside the theater, he grew more impassioned as he implored theater owners to book -- and then keep playing -- the May documentary about global warming: "You are all in a unique position.... There is going to be a grass-roots campaign like you have never seen."

Glickman said the MPAA's survey of consumer attitudes is common sense: "We simply can't afford to rely on guesswork."

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, the organizers of ShoWest, said such a campaign should not be read as "an act of desperation."

Added Fithian, spreading equal responsibility between the studios and theater owners: "It takes good movies and a good moviegoing experience for this business to work."

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