MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

ShoWest Sampler: Animation, 3-D and the new Woody Allen Film

LAS VEGAS — It’s been rumored here that the annual ShoWest soiree, as sure a harbinger of spring as any returning robin, soon could go the way of such once-storied conventions as COMDEX, VSDA, NATPE, NAB, Summer CES and E3.

The computer industry’s “geek week,” as COMDEX became known, once brought 200,000 conventioneers to this city, making room vacancies as scarce as Megabucks winners. Two years later, it disappeared completely. After the Summer CES, held each June in Chicago, was overwhelmed by the demands of an electronics industry in which shelf life was measured in months, not years, the only segment that continued to make things interesting spun itself off as the Electronic Entertainment Expo. That once rowdy convention, like VSDA and NATPE before it, now has deflated to the point where it could be held in a phone booth.

The only success story in the world of conventions lately has been the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which is held simultaneous to the increasingly less fun Winter CES. Given the ready availability of freely available pornography on the Internet, though, it, too, might have gone the way of the dodo bird, if organizers hadn’t opened the exhibition floor and awards show to the public.

ShoWest became famous mostly for the largesse shown by Hollywood studios to North American theater owners. In the days before a handful of chains owned the majority of theaters and multiplexes, distributors would compete for the right to deliver the greatest number of celebrities to banquets and show the best product reels. There was nothing quite like it, even at Cannes or during Oscar week.

When video revenues began to overtake theatrical box-office, the same distributors who financed ShoWest made VSDA the best show in town. After such operations as Blockbuster and Hollywood began to dominate the mom-and-pops – and organizers became embarrassed by the growing adult-video sideshow – VSDA nearly disappeared entirely. Ditto, syndicated-television’s annual love fest, NATPE, which saw its value to broadcasters fall to Fox, UPN, the WB and the cable networks. The National Association of Broadcasters’ tech show, held each April in Las Vegas, hasn’t been the same since it let the software jockeys and post-production nerds steal the thunder from actual broadcasters.

For the last five years at ShoWest – or ever since “digital” became a buzzword in Hollywood — equipment-producing companies have attempted to assume the role once reserved for the studios. Smaller studios and production companies have partnered with such firms to put on a good show for the punters, but they couldn’t command the same star power as the larger entities. This week, the near-absence of gala studio-funded banquets and tchocke-filled goodie bags was more apparent than ever. If it weren’t for the excellent quality of movies that were previewed here, the death knell might already have sounded.

This isn’t to say, however, that that movie business is about to pull up stakes and move to some Third World country, where negotiators for SAG, AFTRA and the Writers Guilds would be shot on sight. No, as we learned this week, too, box-office revenues worldwide soared another 5 percent in 2008, bringing the grand total to $28.1 billion, and U.S. ticket sales already are tracking 8 percent better than those last year. Ducats now average $7.18 a piece and the number of screens with 3-D capability is nearing 2,000. Considering that some international markets have yet to emerge from the bedsheet-on-the-wall era of movie exhibition, the upside remains great.

Still, the MPAA seemed so embarrassed by its member studios’ willingness to overspend in the face of a worldwide economic crisis that, for the first time in 20 years, it refused to divulge industry estimates on production and marketing costs. That wasn’t the reason provided by the lobbying organization’s boss, Dan Glickman, for not revealing the every expanding numbers, of course. Last year, the average total cost was $106.6 million, up $6.3 million from 2006. Those are Bernie Madoff numbers … sometimes for the same payoff for investors.

By comparison, the estimated budget for the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire was $15 million, and its best publicity came from positive word-of-mouth. Milk was limited to the same amount of money, while Frost/Nixon and The Reader were allowed about $35 million. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million, not taking into account what it may have cost to market the picture (the industry average in 2007 was $36 million) after it was finished. To date, Slumdog has logged a domestic box-office gross of $137 million, while Button is plugging along at $127 million.

Even so, the MPAA reportedly has been faulted by some members for not scoring the same tax incentives and infusions of money from President Obama’s stimulus package as other, more troubled industries. In the face of such a public diss by easily bought legislators – many of whom still see Hollywood as suburb of Havana — it probably wouldn’t have been prudent for the studios to lavish even more money on rubber chicken, celebrity lineups and souvenir T-shirts at ShoWest. Alas, it was fun while it lasted.

That said, though, much of the reason exhibitors continue to attend ShoWest is to get sneak previews of the movies they’ll be showing in their theaters from March until Christmas. By all outward appearances, they weren’t disappointed.

As usual, Monday night was reserved for screenings of upcoming independent pictures. Several years ago, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was introduced to exhibitors at this forum and, ever since, they’ve come here looking to re-capture lightning in a bottle. Bill Milner’s heartfelt dramedy, Is Anybody There?, in which  a retired magician (Michael Caine) mentors a death-obsessed 10-year-old boy, drew packed audiences back-to-back, and Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing  Iraq war story, The Hurt Locker, also attracted much attention. Stephan Elliott’s lavish period adaptation of the Noel Coward rom-com, Easy Virtue was as much fun to watch for its beautiful rural setting as the all-star cast (Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth). Kristopher Belman’s documentary profile of LeBron James, More Than a Game, followed the Cleveland Cavalier star’s rise from the playgrounds of Akron to the NBA Pantheon, with the accent on the friendship he forged along the way.

For the next two days, though, the future of 3-D would dominate most of the discussion … just as it had last year, after The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour blew the hinges off the box-office. Last weekend’s dynamite numbers for DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters Vs. Aliens — 56 percent of its nearly $60-million haul came from 3-D venues, even though they represented 28 percent of the 4,000 theaters showing the movie – gave exhibitors hope that their investments in digital projection systems might pay immediate dividends.

If that report didn’t provide enough cause for optimism, Disney/Pixar introduced a slate of 17 3-D projects that had everyone in the standing-room-only crowd dizzy with anticipation. A generous preview of Pixar’s first 3-D animated feature, Up, promised blockbuster numbers, as did news of plans to re-release Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as a digital 3-D double-feature for a two-week engagement in early October (along with a trailer for next summer’s Toy Story 3). Snippets from those movies, and the dance scene from a re-formatted Beauty and the Beast, came next, as did a peek at Pixar’s new series of animated shorts, Cars Toon, and a delightful scene from the 2-D, hand-drawn, The Princess and the Frog, set for a Thanksgiving 2009 release. Also in the pipeline are animated features from Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton and a sequel to Disney’s 1982 ground-breaker, Tron.

At Tuesday’s luncheon presentation, Sony Pictures Animation previewed its September 3-D release, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The feature was adapted from Judi and Ron Barrett’s popular children’s book, in which a hapless scientist creates a rocket that, when shot into the sky, makes food fall from the clouds like rain.

Another stereoscopic feature, The Battle for Terra, imagined a futuristic battle for survival on a planet invaded by desperate Earthlings. The peaceful world is populated by humanoids who look like guppies, crossed with dolphins, and whose advanced technology might have been designed by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

Warner Bros., usually a competitor for the title of most-lavish banquet, this year was content to preview Terminator: Salvation, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover and Sherlock Holmes, for which Robert Downey Jr. made a guest appearance.

Downey would be seen later that evening, as well, alongside Jamie Foxx and Catherine Keener, in Paramount’s The Soloist. Another full house greeted director Joe Wright and writer Susannah Grant’s already much-hyped drama, which was based on a series of columns by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. In addition to demonstrating that exhibitors enjoy watching movies as much as their customers – only they’re far more polite and appreciative of serious fare — The Soloist delicately alluded to the very real possibility that a decimation of newsrooms, even at the nation’s most important papers, could prevent stories like that of homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers from being published. It’s unlikely that the same impact would have been felt if Lopez were required to condense his reporting in a blog or Twitter, before it ran full in the Times, as is the current trend.

Wednesday began with a low-key presentation by Sony, during which exhibitors were teased with previews of Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ sequel to The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons; The Ugly Truth,  a rom-com with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler; Julia and Julia, in which Meryl Streep portrays Julia Child; the Peter Jackson-produced sci-fi thriller, District 9; Harold RamisYear One; and Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Attendees also were pleased to hear that the studio had committed to the resuscitation of its Ghostbusters and Men in Black franchises.

Among the live-action pictures showcased were the Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds rom-com, The Proposal, in which a much-hated publishing diva is forced, by fear of deportation, to marry her much younger assistant. The plot thickens when the city girl makes a pre-nuptial visit to his Alaskan hometown, where relatives played by Betty White, and Mary Steenburgen seriously test her resolve. Bullock looks quite a bit younger than her 44 years, so the purported age gap between her character and Reynolds’ isn’t nearly as wide as it should have been. Still, their chemistry is good, and The Proposal is the best comic vehicle Bullock has had in memory.

It was mentioned at one point during the convention that The Cove could appeal to many of the same people who made March of the Penguins such a hit. It would be a mistake to advance that theory in the documentary’s marketing campaign, though, as what happens to unsuspecting dolphins in their visits to a Japanese fishing region more accurately resembles the aquatic equivalent of genocide. In it, a group of western activists travel to the Japanese coast to reveal the deeply hidden secret of the almost daily dolphin harvests in a cove near Taiji. It’s where the country’s whaling industry has been memorialized and trained dolphins actually have been imported to entertain tourists. Also indicted and found guilty are the Japanese government officials who knowingly fed mercury-tainted seafood to students, bought votes at international trade gatherings and actively promoted the idea that whales and dolphins were “pests,” responsible for depleting the world’s fish inventory. The Cove is a powerful documentary, but I can only hope that cooler marketing heads prevail.

The week’s final screening was Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, a fractured romantic fairy tale that suggests the filmmaker’s four-picture European sojourn might have helped him see his beloved New York with fresh eyes. In it, grumpy Larry David plays a misanthropic physicist – and, of course, Allen’s newest alter ego – who gives up his research after a divorce and failed suicide attempt. After dinner, one night, he’s confronted by a blond waif who’s run away from her Mississippi home and is in desperate need of a meal and couch on which to sleep. Even though Evan Rachel Wood’s character touches all of his raw nerves, they embark on the unlikeliest of relationships. Things get even crazier when the girl’s estranged parents (Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr.) arrive in New York, a year later, separately, and experience culture shock. Often hilarious, Whatever Works is set for a June release.

Among the more entertaining aspects of any ShoWest was a tour of the exhibition floor, where theater owners could deal directly with purveyors of everything from floor polish and lighting strips, to genetically advanced popcorn and infinitely more gummy snacks. If the effects of the recession on the movie business could be seen anywhere in Las Vegas this week, it was here. Hardly any new treats were introduced by concessioners and the number of booths seemed diminished from last year’s show.

This meant the delightful cacophony of smells, sounds and tastes was sadly reduced, as well. Nowhere was the absence felt more succinctly than the booth annually maintained by Chicago’s Eisenberg Gourmet Frankfurters. In years past, people would wait in line for a half-hour for the opportunity to enjoy an Eisenberg hot dog or Polish sausage.

Last year, apparently, ShoWest organizers tried to reduce congestion around the booth, by asking the company not to offer traditional garnishes. Tragically, this week, the Eisenberg reps were manning the same location, but both the hot dogs and their magnetic aroma were missing, along with the relish and mustard. If corporate belt-tightening were to blame – “no comment” was the only explanation proffered – then, truly, the impact of the recession on show business must be more serious than box-office numbers would suggest.

– Gary Dretzka
April 3, 2009

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