MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

ShoWest ’08

LAS VEGAS – Not many robins add a visit to the Strip to their itinerary, as they migrate north from their winter digs in Mexico. Blossoming fruit trees are few and far between and the fancies of young men turn less often to love than the pleasures associated with strip clubs and wagering on the NCAA basketball tournament.

One of the only sure signs of spring in these parts is ShoWest, convened each March under the banner of the National Association of Theater Owners. Although the annual convention and trade show has seen its better days, most winter-weary participants can hardly wait to return to sunny Las Vegas, where they will be wined and dined by studio executives, invited to screen upcoming movies, fill their suitcases with swag and observe mega-stars from afar.

Apart from attending a few seminars, sales meetings and awards ceremonies, all that’s required of NATO members is to have fun. That’s because most of the distribution deals are made elsewhere and without the advice or consent of the folks on the front lines of the movie business … the same ones who get shortchanged by the studios on blockbusters, and bloodied by the shrapnel of their bombs. Screenings are extremely well attended, not only because a few bona fide stars might be introduced from the stage, but also because these people genuinely love movies.

In recent years, the major studios have found other things to do with their money than to sponsor banquets, where historically they have previewed the movies the theater owners will exhibit in the months to come. In their absence, the vacuum was filled by such mini-majors as Lionsgate, Miramax and New Line, and hardware companies like Christie’s, DLP Cinema and Kodak. Even so, the gala presentations once associated with ShoWest had become as endangered as the average desert tortoise.

Fact is, though, the majors will come calling whenever they’re looking for someone with whom to share the burden of making show business profitable. The 2008 edition of ShoWest provided an example of how studios will attempt to enlist the support of business partners they no longer could ignore.

This time around, the majors wanted theater owners to get excited about the coming of age of 3-D cinema and the riches to be found by multi-tasking their large-format auditoriums. The message was little different than the one delivered in years past by such estimable filmmakers as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez andGeorge Lucas, and pioneering companies like In-Three, Real D, DLP Cinema, Christie and Dolby Labs. Disney has been a leader in the advancement of 3-D entertainment, encouraging filmmakers to think multi-dimensionally and re-releasing such movies as The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D.

Per-screen box-office numbers for Disney’s concert film, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, Zemeckis’ 3-D editions of Beowulf and Polar Express, and 3ality Digital Entertainment’s U2 3D, demanded everyone’s attention. All of sudden, the format’s growth potential went from wishful thinking to can’t miss.

It must have come as a refreshing change for the theater owners to listen to keynote speakers who were optimistic about the theatrical movie-going experience. For most of them, listening to the media hype surrounding the dubious financial prospects for the podcasting and downloading of motion pictures and TV shows onto cellphone screens must have been painful.

It’s extremely likely that many of the potential blockbusters previewed at ShoWest will be shown on both normal-aspect and IMAX-sized screens, if not routinely in 3-D. Few new megaplexes are being built without one theater, at least, equipped with a digital projector capable of showing 2-D and 3-D movies. The costs related to retrofitting existing facilities also have become more manageable.

As DreamWorks Animation czar pointed out in his address, customers have displayed a willingness to pay a higher price to see 3-D movies, knowing the technology can deliver the goods and the theaters themselves are clean and comfortable. Moreover, studies show many fans are paying to see both the 3-D and 2-D versions of a favorite title.

These movies also are far more difficult to pirate or share over the Internet. Who would pay to own a 3-D movie that can only be shown on a 2-D monitor, or find value in a small-scale version of an IMAX movie?

One potential sticking point arrives in the form of feared glut of major releases arriving this summer. Theater owners anticipate having to find room for as many as 25 “event” pictures, compared with 18 in the same period last year. If more than a handful of distributors make their available in large- or 3-D formats, exhibitors could have a difficult time clearing space for everyone.

In this way, theater owners are as unhappy about the studios’ summer-centric distribution pattern for popcorn movie as the disgruntled fans of more serious fare who face a quality glut each December. NATO has asked MPAA member companies to consider spreading out their big-budget releases throughout the year, but only a few seem willing to buck the trend.

Even before ShoWest officially opened, panelists at a seminar on the changing international marketplace focused their attention on 3-D.

“The big growth product we have as an industry going forward is 3-D,” said Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures International. “I would ask everybody to get on board. If we’re going to make 3-D work internationally, we need to have the screens,” and, of course, digital projectors.

In his address Tuesday morning, Katzenberg reiterated his support for 3-D by giving exhibitors sneak peeks of next spring’s Monsters vs. Aliens and this summer’s otherwise 2-D Kung Fu Panda. (A scene from Panda was reshot from its original format, using 3-D technology new to the studio’s animators.)

DreamWorks Animation is committed to release its entire 2009 slate in digital 3-D. To make such a strategy pay off for everyone, Katzenberg predicted that an installed base of 3,000 to 5,000 3-D-ready theaters would be necessary for the Monsters vs. Aliens release. For the first, such a number didn’t seem ridiculously over-optimistic.

A few hours later, Robert Redford would implore many of the same exhibitors to embrace smaller-scale movies with the same enthusiasm. Despite the Motion Picture Academy’s willingness this year to lavish nominations on independently financed titles, theater owners always seem more willing to lose money on lowbrow Hollywood junk than to take a chance on indies, foreign and documentary titles. This year’s recipient of the ShoWest Visionary Award urged them to “continue to build a market for new voices and new works, continue to take chances on good stories, well told and told in new ways.”

He added, “Specialty films are now becoming the norm. With these films becoming so deeply ingrained in our American culture, I do feel we are the better for it.”

Also honored were Ang Lee and James Schamus, whose steamy period drama, Lust, Caution, continues to raise the hackles of Chinese authorities; and multi-hyphenatesAlan Ball, David Mamet and Helen Hunt, all of whose latest films – Towelhead, Redbelt, Then She Found Me — conveniently were on display the night before at the annual indie showcase.

Tuesday evening’s festivities began with screenings of DreamWorks/Paramount’s Kung Fu Panda and a preview of the Mike Myers/Jessica Alba comedy, The Love Guru, with both stars in attendance. Paramount’s after-party would trumpet Tropic Thunder, which stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and the ubiquitous Jack Black (who voiced the panda aspiring to martial-arts glory). Director-star Ben Stiller showed up at the soiree with Downey, whose actor-turned-soldier character is black. It’s difficult to imagine there not being a “blackface” controversy erupting during the marketing campaign for Tropic Thunder. Whether it will help or hinder potential box-office results remains to be seen.

Also screened on Tuesday were the indie classroom-comedy Hamlet 2 and What Happens in Vegas, in which Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher play a mismatched pair of jackpot winners who can’t remember how their celebration led to marriage. (How many times has that premise been employed?)

A large part of Wednesday’s program was devoted to the immediate future of 3-D, with a partial screening of nWave/Summit’s animated Fly Me to the Moon and New Line’s first-of-its-kind live-action feature, Journey to the Center of the Earth. The 85-minute Fly Me to the Moon will be released in August and could be deemed sufficiently “educational” to play at museum venues, as well as mainstream theaters. The latest adaptation of the classic Jules Verne sci-fi adventure stars Brendan Fraser, and is as much an amusement-park ride as a cinematic adventure. Both will test the theory that 45 minutes is about all any viewer can take of the 3-D experience.

That evening, Columbia Pictures took full advantage of the Las Vegas setting by screening its fact-based gambling-scam thriller, 21, at theaters in Paris and Bally’s, and celebrating the premiere with a lavish party at Planet Hollywood. The cast of 21, which adds some drama and romance to the story of a group of MIT students who beat the system, includesKevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess.

Thursday, before the annual award gala finale, Universal and Warner Bros. rolled out their big guns.

Universal and Marvel executives appear to have convinced themselves of the ability of its Hulk franchise to heal itself and give the studio the blockbuster not delivered by the Ang Lee/Eric Bana original. The Incredible Hunk stars Edward Norton and is directed byLouis Leterrier (The Transporter). This time around, no one is skimping on the CGI effects.

Fraser also turns up August 1 in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Ron Perlman is back in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, opening July 13.

The ABBA musical Mamma Mia! arrives a week later, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. Angelina Jolie returns to the fantasy-thriller arena June 27, inWanted, alongside James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann and Common.

At one time, Warners could be counted on to deliver the most stars for the conventioneers’ money, year after year. Now, the showing of a WB product reel qualifies as a special event. It didn’t disappoint.

Producer Joel Silver was on hand to introduce snippets from the Wachowski Brothers’much-anticipated adaptation of Speed Racer, which, he enthused, would be released PG on May 9. Stars Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox and Christina Ricci made cameo appearances for the NATO crowd.

Director Christopher Nolan introduced the IMAX-ready The Dark Knight, which, on July 18, picks up where Batman Begins left off. Standing alongside Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nolan saluted the contributions made by the late Heath Ledger,who plays the Joker.

Other highlights included previews of Get Smart, a spy spoof adapted from the classic ’60s TV series, starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, will be reprised with America Ferrera, Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn and Blake Lively. George Lucas also paid a surprise visit to the gathering.

WB boss Alan Horn reminded the audience that Lucas was returning to the fold for the first time since THX 1138 was released in 1971. His CGI animated The Clone Wars,which documents the period between the second and third episodes of the Star Warssaga, originally was intended to launch on TV’s Cartoon Network and TNT. Instead, it will debut August 18 on the big screen, because, as Lucas pointed out, it has “a little bit of anime, a lot of action and it’s exactly like the features, only more stylized. I think it can stand up to the live-action features.”

As essential to the ShoWest experience as the screenings and parties is the trade show, held concurrently with the other diversions. It’s where the latest advances in concessions, seats, janitorial supplies, projectors, bulbs, popcorn kernels, carpeting, sound insulation and promotional materials are put on display. It’s best to visit the exhibition floor on an empty stomach, as the temptation to pig out on all manner of candy, ice cream, soft drinks, coffee, tea, pizza, pretzels and hot dogs is overwhelming.

Most of the venders return year after year, offering slight variations on the previous convention’s goodies. The competition to concoct candies that are squishier, crunchier, gummier, more sour and longer lasting is fierce. Halloween has nothing on ShoWest.

Among the newcomers this year was the candy maker, Góa, which modestly bills itself as “the second biggest confectionary in Iceland.” Its representatives credit the “world’s purest water,” in part, for chocolate that would bring a tear to the eyes of Willy Wonka. Góa also produces licorice that actually tastes like the stuff Grandma and Grandpa might have enjoyed when they were kids. It was one of the most popular booths on the exhibition floor.

Samples of theater-ready White Castle hamburgers also proved to be irresistible. Pillsbury introduced cookies, donuts and brownie bits from its heat-and-serve line of Mini Sweet treats. To help wash them down, the folks at Frozen Beverage Dispensers encouraged exhibitors to sample freshly stirred confections, while Coke and Pepsi competed not only in the cola category, but also for consumers of power drinks, vitamin water, iced tea, coffee and fruit drinks.

Cretors, which has been popping corn since Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was one several exhibiters offering bags of popcorn to attendees. The company was demonstrating its Flo-Thru 80 popper and cylindrical flavor coater, which allows theater managers to pop caramel, jalapeno, Rocky Road and other flavors of candied popcorn on-site, in addition to the original flavor.

Like nearly every other company doing business in the western world these days, purveyors of packaging and maintenance products went “green.” Solvents became less harmful to the environment, emissions from machinery were made cooler and everything from trash bags to candy boxes qualified as biodegradable.

If only someone would invent a cheese-processing technique that eliminated – or, at least, neutralized — the potentially toxic and non-biodegradable properties of nachos.

For several years, conventioneers have made a beeline for the booth handing out samples of America’s Gourmet Beef Franks from Chicago’s Kelly Eisenberg company. The delicious aroma permeated the exhibition hall and there always was a line for the dogs, which came in half-servings and a choice of appropriate condiments.

Sadly, the Eisenbergs decided not to offer the tasty sausages at the 2008 trade show. For aficionados of concessionary fare, the disappointment was palpable.

“The other exhibiters complained that people were waiting in line for our hot dogs, instead of visiting their booths,” one salesman said. “Even cut in half, we couldn’t keep up with the demand, so the line would curl around the corner. It wasn’t a question of expense.”

Try that with popcorn, and NATO would have a revolution on its hands.

March 19, 2008

– Gary Dretzka

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