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A buyer's market for theater owners

As they pitch their films, distributors worry about the crowded summer marketplace.

March 14, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS — They didn't kick their feet up on the plush stadium seating, chat on their cellphones or stick gum under their seats, but theater owners who attended a marathon session of movie sales pitches from four of the major studios on ShoWest's opening day made themselves nice and comfortable as they tuned into this summer's coming attractions.

The pressure to stand out from the crowd and book movies onto thousands of global screens this summer is fraught with anticipation. Among the dozens of teasers highlighted late Monday afternoon during the annual international marketing and distribution presentation at the Paris Hotel's Le Theatre Des Arts, a few stood out.

There was a six-minute clip of "Spider-Man 3," including a romantic scene between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and an action sequence between Parker and Venom (Topher Grace), as well as sneak peeks at "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Evan Almighty." But to the great disappointment of "Harry Potter" fans, Warner Bros. backed out of showing an "Order of the Phoenix" clip.

With so many strong movies lined up for this summer, the big question is: "Will the hits start to cannibalize each other?" said Joe Ortiz, executive director, sales administration, for 20th Century Fox International. "Typically, if a movie is making money, nobody is going to want to pull it off the screen, unless something even bigger comes along. It will be interesting to see how that plays out this summer."

Underscoring that pressure, one of the most feverish pitches came from the Paramount Pictures International sales team, which showcased Michael Bay's "Transformers." "This is not a toy movie. Michael Bay understands commercial cinema," said John Anderson, a Paramount marketing executive. " 'Transformers' has great characters, romance, subversive humor and CGI that will blow your mind. The human talent is available for publicity. I encourage you to screen the trailer at your theater as soon as possible."

If the pitch seemed slightly sweaty, including a desperate-sounding plea to run a teaser, it may have less to do with the quality of Bay's latest "event film" than with the overheated state of the marketplace that "Transformers" will lumber into when it opens July 4. With such movies as "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" opening nearly back to back at the multiplex in coming months, followed by "The Simpsons Movie," one thing is certain: It's a buyer's market and that's exactly the way theaters owners like it.

"With more choices out there, it gives us, as theater owners, better bottom line," said Robert Dening, chief executive of Reel Theatre, based in Boise, Idaho. "It's all product driven, so based on that, it looks like a very strong summer." He planned to screen many of the films at length before deciding what to book. But Dening has high hopes for "Pirates" and "Harry Potter," opening in mid-July.

With so much strong "product" on display, a frequent topic of discussion on the show floor is whether theater owners will dump solid movies for fresher films as bookings start to heat up.

One young exhibition executive from Carmike Cinemas, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to offend senior colleagues, said it was not unusual for strong movies to be demoted to smaller theaters to make way for newer titles, a fact that is a point of friction with distributors who want their films to play in marquee theaters with advertising prominently displayed in the lobby.

That's why certain safety mechanisms are put in place during booking negotiations, to protect both the distributor and exhibitor, Ortiz noted. If any given film dips below a certain box-office performance level, an exhibitor is free to fold the film and put a new one in its place.

But during an after-party stocked with beer and egg rolls in a multiplex lobby above the Orleans Casino late Monday night, film booker Jan Kligelhofer said any suggestion that a summer rich in product would suddenly tilt the balance of power between media conglomerate-owned studios and smaller theater chains was a short-lived illusion.

"Exhibitors do like to think that they may one day have the upper hand with the studios," Kligelhofer said. "They think: If we band together we could call the shots, but I always say to them, 'On what planet?' "

She and a handful of her clients are attending ShoWest's annual indie film showcase to track down promising counter-programming to the big studios' summer tent poles.

"It is going to be a huge summer but I'm looking for challenging films, not just sequels. More projects need to be discovered on the whole. I'm really not interested in playing the blockbusters," said Jeffrey Frank, president of Drexel Theater Group.

He said while it would be good business to book "Spider-Man 3," the movie he was really hot for is Don Cheadle's "Talk to Me," about ex-con Petey Greene, "the people's prophet," who became a renowned talk radio host during the civil rights era in Washington, D.C.

Whether theater owners churn and burn through summer titles or craftily counter-program around mainstream movie fare it's very likely that exhibitors and distributors alike will reap the benefits of a strong summer lineup since both ultimately serve only one master.

"I see a crowded summer resulting in better cooperation between distributors and exhibitors than in the past," said Brian Trego, president of Southwest Theaters, based in New Mexico. "Studios aren't at the mercy of exhibitors, they're at the mercy of the public. That's who dictates what I put on my screens, not the studios."

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