Execs say 'Avatar' transformed 3D cinema

Exhibitors discussed pic at ShoWest as a significant 'event'

LAS VEGAS -- "Avatar" gave exhibition a big year-end boost, but its effect on the market embrace of 3D has been even more dramatic.

That was the clear -- and clearly welcome -- sentiment among a group of exhibitors spotlighting exhibition trends and challenges Monday at ShoWest. Part of the confab's opening-day offerings, the panel was moderated by Elizabeth Guider, editor of The Hollywood Reporter.

"For each new technology, there is a transforming event, and for 3D it was 'Avatar,' " said Tom Stephenson, CEO of the Dallas-based Rave circuit.

"A lot of people who don't even go to the movies went to see 'Avatar,'" noted Tony Kerasotes, CEO of Chicago-based Kerasotes Theatres.

International execs on the panel said a 3D footprint in many foreign territories that's even smaller than in the U.S. has them dreaming of times when the fledgling format can throw off truly extra-dimensional revenue. With just 10% or less of the screens in markets such as Latin America, Russia and even the U.K. equipped for digital projection, exhibs there have added 3D capabilities in virtually all existing digital auditoriums.

" 'Avatar' is still going gangbusters business for us, but we're going to have to let those screens go to dragon-lovers," said Paul Heth, chief of the Rising Star circuit in Russia that's poised to open 3D animated feature "How to Train Your Dragon."

Treading into the controversial topic of tighter theatrical windows for select pics, some of the panelists waxed philosophically about the inevitability of the shortening windows.

"I guess I'm a realist, and I know that it is going to be shrinking at some point," said Steve Wiener, CEO of the U.K. circuit Cineworld.

When Guider pressed him to elaborate, Wiener added, "I still want to play their movies!"
Other panelists were less shy.

"They are pushing the limits and are risking the great business we have had," Cinemark International president Valmir Fernandes said of recent studio moves to squeeze the theatrical window from a traditional four months to three months or less.

The line drew applause from an audience packed with exhibs. Fernandes also added a conciliatory note. "But we need to be flexible," he suggested.

Stephenson said studios want to hasten movies into home-entertainment release less to quicken films' release on DVD than to exploit burgeoning digital distribution platforms such as video on demand.

In an earlier luncheon keynote, Sony Pictures Entertainment chief Michael Lynton waded into the windows discussion when he asked exhibs to show a collaborative attitude on the subject. He also urged theater operators to broaden their thinking on concessions.

Lynton said studio research shows theater patrons crave healthy food and beverage alternatives to high-calorie traditional snacks, with two-thirds of moviegoers and three-quarters of parents saying they would be more likely to buy healthy snacks if they were offered.

But the Sony exec stressed he's not suggesting theaters abandon popcorn, candy and soda.
"Audiences love them," Lynton said. "I'm just talking about adding some healthier items to what you already sell."

Exhib panelists said afterward the remarks sounded familiar.

"Every two years, the center for the Study of No Fun comes out with their call for an alternative to popcorn," Kerasotes cracked. "It's a bunch of hooey."