Commentary: Upbeat moods exhibited at ShoWest welcome sign amid showbiz slowdown


I love the moment in "A Bridge Too Far" when Sean Connery, playing a general in the British air force, turns to his commander Dirk Bogarde and confides that he gets queasy on planes, just as he's about to lead paratroopers and gliders across the channel for the final assault on the Germans in Holland. It's a piquant moment in the sturdy warhorse, which, among other pleasures features a phalanx of stars (and soon-to-be stars) almost as large as the contingent of Allied soldiers.

Watching movies like this and remembering the blood, sweat and tears that go into orchestrating these entertainments makes it all the harder to be snarky, even if back-bitingly bitchy has become the tone of so much reporting on our industry.

However, now that we have automakers and bankers to rail against and our own diminished fortunes to lament, the excesses, occasional ineptitude or outright inanity of the film industry seem venial by comparison.

More importantly, the movie biz is, knock on wood, proving as recession-resistant now as it has been through most other economic downturns in the past 30 years.

Titles as diverse as "Taken," "Marley & Me" and DreamWorks Animation's current juggernaut "Monsters vs. Aliens" -- not to mention the ka-ching of more challenging fare including "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Benjamin Button" -- are attracting audiences worldwide. Foreign revenue, which is 65% of the $28 billion in worldwide grosses, seem to have nowhere to go but up.

To be sure, they don't "make them like they used to," like say in the late 1970s, when William Goldman penned the script for and Richard Attenborough helmed "Bridge Too Far"; nor would "they" nowadays since striving for what used to be called historical accuracy is out of fashion and assembling so many first-rate actors would be a financial a no-no.

In addition to Connery and Bogarde, "Bridge" features Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Laurence Olivier, Liv Ullmann, Elliott Gould, Denholm Eliott, James Caan, Robert Redford, Edward Fox, Maximillian Schell and Anthony Hopkins, among others. Can you imagine the bullet holes in the boxoffice if those folks knew about first-dollar gross?

But back to snarkiness. It tends to dissipate the further one distances oneself from Hollywood. Even just a jaunt to Vegas will do.

However fraught other parts of the entertainment industry are -- the TV biz reeling from the ad downturn, DVD no longer wagging the theatrical dog -- Sin City was one determinedly upbeat place to be this week with ShoWest 2009 in town.

"I can't believe we're in such a fortunate business," one moviehouse owner said to me, proceeding unprompted to run down the list of every other hard-hit industry in his city.

The Vegas event brings together big and small film exhibitors with Hollywood distributors for four days of movie-trailer viewing, panels, promotions for the latest in popcorn flavors and stadium seats -- and a lot of back and forth about digital rollouts and 3-D.

Watching trailers is, as the exhibitor reminded me, a little like "the triumph of hope over experience," since not every movie fulfills expectations. Still, he said he has been especially pleased with product flow and the quality of studio output during the past year.

As for distributors, they arrived with a game plan as focused as what Bogarde and his crew were hatching for Holland.

3-D was hailed as a game-changer by such studio heads as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Jim Gianopulos, who made impassioned speeches about the ongoing relevancy of the film biz, both its buoyancy in the face of recession and new vigor from high-end 3-D productions.

The impressive domestic gross for the opening of "Monsters" the previous weekend -- almost $60 million -- overlayed the proceedings, sparking Katzenberg to proclaim the technology was the single-biggest improvement in cinema since the introduction of sound. Polling, he said, suggests that 38% of moviegoers who saw "Monsters" in 2-D would have preferred to get into a standing-room-only 3-D screening -- and wouldn't have minded paying extra to do so.

In his keynote, Gianopulos suggested that while overall leisure time in the past decade has slipped from 26 hours to 16 and is spread among a wider array of activities, the theatrical experience remains a bargain few are prepared to give up.

"The fact remains that audiences still value, in fact stand in line for, the experience of seeing a film in the theater, and that experience is taking a huge leap forward with digital exhibition, and particularly 3-D cinema," the Fox chairman and CEO said. "That's true here, and in every corner of the planet."

Still, no one argues the road ahead will be smooth:

> MPA figures reveal that boxoffice buoyancy depends as much on higher ticket prices (the average now is $7.18) as it does on bums in seats; last year, there was a downtick of almost 1% in domestic admissions to 1.36 billion tickets sold despite a 2% uptick in grosses to $9.8 billion.

> No one seems to have an answer to piracy, with Spain and Russia being particularly buffeted at present and a rough cut of Fox's upcoming "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" recently leaked online.

> Whatever their outward optimism, exhibitors have put the brakes on efforts to upgrade and equip their cinemas with digital and 3-D systems because of the ongoing credit crunch, and they still want the studios to shoulder more of the financial freight.

> There are larger problems at the conglomerates: battered stock prices, too little liquidity and too much debt, and no clear-cut economic model for digital.

Film must continue to fight the good fight for all concerned: The challenge of taking that far bridge in Arnhem might end up an apt analogy for what these companies have to overcome.