Future to fore as exhibs close ShoWest

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A modest version of the annual confab compared with earlier years, ShoWest 2009 offered this intriguing snapshot of the exhibition business: an industry in search of its future self.

"The way the industry has grown over the past decade-and-a-half is not going to be the way we grow in the future," AMC Entertainment CEO Gerry Lopez said this week.

Instead of growth through acquisitions and dramatic internal expansion, attendance and revenue gains will have to be driven by industry innovation, Lopez said. Digital and 3-D presentation, giant-screen partnerships with Imax and similar initiatives will be among the most vital steps in maintaining a growth tract for exhibition, he added.

"All of those are going to continue to differentiate the theatrical experience from any other movie experience," Lopez said. "And at AMC, we're also going to be more aggressive about expanding our food and beverage experience."

Select expansion by the major circuits will resume once the credit crunch eases, and it's expected that the 1,500 screens that National Amusement has up for sale will draw offers by exhibitors looking to bolster market presence in various regions.

On Thursday, AMC announced an innovative program directed at patrons with autism. For select showtimes of movies featured in its new Sensory Friend Films program, AMC will turn up auditorium lights slightly, turn down the theater's sound a bit and relax no-talking rules.

The program began with an ad hoc initiative in a handful of venues after parents contacted a theater manager about needs of children with autism. That produced a pilot project, which AMC decided to expand throughout its circuit.

"That's a real 'do-the-right-thing' story," Lopez said.

Alternative programming discussed at the confab amounts to more of a do-the-clever-thing ploy. Ballet and opera have been big hits, but presentation and scheduling can be key — and not all nonmovie programming will succeed.

"Some things work, others don't," Harkins Theatres chief Dan Harkins said during a panel discussion.

Attendance at ShoWest was off 15% from last year's confab at 2,450, and booths on the tradeshow floor were down a bit. The declines are a reflection of industry cost containments that have prompted companies to send fewer reps to the show.

"The companies have just cut back," said ShoWest co-managing director Mitch Neuhauser, who noted that individual companies sent fewer representatives this year. "But there are some circuits here who have gone above and beyond, so considering the economy, support from the industry has been really strong."

ShoWest was set to conclude its four-day run at the Bally's and Paris hotels with an awards gala Thursday night. (partialdiff)
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