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Shaping up as an endless summer

Theater owners salivate over potential hits while studios fret about the fierce competition.

March 13, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS — Call it the summer of shove. As theater owners and studios head into the second day of the annual ShoWest convention this week, it's easy to figure out who is bulking up for the competition on the animation front -- "Shrek the Third" banners are papered around baggage claim at McCarran airport, thousands of conventioneers are shouldering "Ratatouille" tote bags, snacking on "Surf's Up" candy or crashing on "The Simpsons Movie's" big orange couch, where they can cozy up to Homer for a photo op.

Though ShoWest is all about the future, everyone was talking about "300," the graphic novel turned movie that had a record-breaking $70-million opening this weekend. Its strong showing has left theater owners here pumped -- the summer, they believe, is shaping up to be anything but spartan.

"I think '300's' performance was outstanding," said Craig Shurn, film booking director for London-based Odeon & UCI Cinemas. "The spring has been huge, and I think it's going to continue from here through the summer."

Bolstering the nearly giddy mood on the convention floor are recent Motion Picture Assn. of America findings that worldwide box-office sales jumped 11% in 2006, to $25.8 billion, and that 63% of moviegoers say they prefer viewing films in theaters rather than in their living rooms.

The only potential bump Shurn sees, at least on the international front, is the number of big sequels -- "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third." In a survey of theatergoers in Europe, Odeon found audiences wanted to see good stories, with fewer sequels or computer-generated films. He thinks "The Simpsons Movie," which is traditional animation based on the popular TV series that has been distributed for years internationally, and the live-action "Transformers" are two films that will perform exceptionally well overseas.

Still, behind the giant penguin and ogre standees at the Paris hotel-casino, home base for the theater owners' confab, the studios are sweating "Die Hard"-sized bullets over how their projects will fare in what is shaping up to be one of the most crowded and competitive summer seasons in years.

" 'Shrek' will definitely do business because the other two [films] already paved the way," said J. Edward Shugrue, chairman of MegaStar, which builds multiplexes in Vietnam. "Shrek is just a great character. DreamWorks could make another million of those and I think it would be OK." But as to the prospects for "Surf's Up" and "Ratatouille," he added "they don't have any sort of reputation abroad, so it's difficult to know how they'll do."

Sony Pictures Animation got an early jump on the dog days of summer by throwing a lavish luau to showcase "Surf's Up," a docu-style "Endless Summer" starring animated penguins, on its Culver City lot last week. Sony will replay the teaser to exhibitors in Las Vegas on Thursday.

DreamWorks Animation has similar early word-of-mouth aspirations. The studio has scheduled a media tour in Northern California to flaunt "Shrek the Third" a week after ShoWest. The film's co-directors, Chris Miller and Raman Hui, have also been tapped as ShoWest animation directors of the year. And there have been rumors for weeks that the third installment of "Shrek" will be one of the surprise teases in Vegas.

It's all about whetting theater owners' appetites.

Last year at ShoWest, in a bid to ensure a spot when it came to summer bookings, DreamWorks Animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg organized a last-minute screening of an incomplete "Over the Hedge" not long after John Lasseter premiered "Cars." Ironically, many convention-goers snoozed through the screening of "Cars," which went on to gross $244 million at the domestic box office and earn an Oscar nod, while they fell in love with "Over the Hedge," which pulled in far less at $155 million.

This year, Pixar is expected to use today's opening ceremony to tease "Ratatouille," but it will take audiences to decide whether it will turn into the summer's big cheese.

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