risky business

ShoWest '07 more about bottom lines than bling

It's called show business. But here at the annual ShoWest convention, with only a few exceptions, the business has eclipsed the show.

In years past, the Hollywood studios trotted out their biggest stars as a way of wowing theater operators. But the last big blowout of that sort took place in 2004, when Paramount Pictures, under then-chairman Sherry Lansing, hosted a dais that featured talent ranging from Jim Carrey and Nicolas Cage to Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. The event was designed to bolster Lansing's regime, then under siege. It didn't quite work; some of the ballyhooed films eventually connected with audiences, but many disappointed, and Lansing announced her resignation later that year.

This year, the major studios chose to play their cards closer to the vest. In part, it's because the studios have been complaining about the costs involved in jetting pampered stars into Vegas. In part, because of the consolidation of the theater chains, the studios only really need to deal with a handful of bookers and aren't required to rub shoulders with the dwindling number of mom-and-pop operators. And in part it's because, with a sequel-heavy summer on the horizon, there is genuine optimism that 2007 boxoffice returns will better those of 2006.

There has been much talk this week of the great expectations surrounding the potential blue-chip trifecta of Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 3," arriving domestically May 4; Paramount's release of DreamWorks' "Shrek the Third" (May 18); and Buena Vista's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (May 25). Of the three, the only one to tip its hat to the exhibs was "Pirates," with producer Jerry Bruckheimer making a brief stop to show off the latest trailer for the film, which he called the "biggest, most exciting picture" of his career.

Cognizant of the cutthroat competition in the animation arena, Buena Vista also offered a charming, 12-minute sequence from Pixar's "Ratatouille," while Sony Animation offered footage from this year's animated penguin movie, "Surf's Up."

Indie Lionsgate jumped into the void with a full-court press, but the only studio to mount a true song-and-dance act was New Line Cinema, which had the crowd on its feet and applauding several scenes from the musical "Hairspray." Not only did New Line screen footage, but it also cleverly melded onscreen musical numbers with live, onstage performances from the movie's younger cast members, capping it off with a shake-the-rafters turn by Queen Latifah. Director Adam Shankman then brought out the movie's principal cast, including John Travolta, who drew more cheers.

While the studios appeared to give domestic theater owners short shrift, they were much more attentive to the international buyers, who were the focus of Monday's schedule. Four studios rolled out extensive product reels for foreign exhibitors.

Simply put, the competition for screens overseas, where boxoffice rose more dramatically in 2006 than it did in the U.S., is intense. Foreign countries aren't as heavily screened as the U.S., and they are supporting more homegrown product, which competes with Hollywood titles. The studios are doing all they can to maximize foreign grosses; for example, Andrew Cripps, president of the new Paramount International, explained that instead of debuting "Shrek" day-and-date around the world, he shifted its international openings to mid-June to take advantage of school vacation schedules overseas.

Hollywood might be taking the domestic market for granted, but when it comes to the rest of the world, it's far from complacent.
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