Exhibitors party as ShowEast wraps

But tensions surrounding digital transition are clear

ORLANDO -- Exhibition confabs like ShowEast are always part business and part giant office party.

Films distributors curry favors with exhibitors, while concession and tech vendors pitch wares to the same theater owners. But in a boxoffice year like the current one, in which grosses are up 5% even as a recession ravages other industries, it's hard not to pop a few bottles of bubbly as well.

Just don't bring up the topic of digital cinema, unless you're looking for one big buzzkill.

Sure, there were panel discussions and product promos aplenty about digital and 3D projection during the trade show, which wrapped a four-day run Thursday at the Marriott Orlando World Center. But the topic tended to prompt expressions of exhib frustrations with the slow pace of the industry's rollout of the technology because of drawn-out financing woes.

A Technicolor presentation of a film-based 3D system, positioned as a low-cost alternative to digital conversions, seemed only to confuse the tense situation further.

So it sounded more like a threat than a promise when University Mall Theatres' Mark O'Meara kicked off one d-cinema presentation by declaring, "Digital cinema is here to stay."

Still, the bankers who mixed warily with exhibs and distribs during the week generally carried a message of smoother financial sailing for the months ahead. D-cinema integrator Cinedigm bolstered optimism when it announced a $100 million funding from a pair of lenders that would allow the rollout of more than 2,100 additional digital systems next year.

On the trade show floor, d-cinema vendors comprised two rival camps: those involving Sony Electronics' 4K projectors and related hardware and those using DLP Cinema's technology. The latter largely was 2K-based until Sony started gaining traction with its 4K push and DLP had to expand into higher-resolution products as well.

Pity the poor exhibitor tracking the situation.

Henry McCalmont of Twin Lakes Cinemas in Mountain Home, Ark., arrived at ShowEast feeling good about recently converting three of his six screens to digital cinema.

"Now, they've got me all scared about the need to go 4K," he said.

Fortunately, ShowEast also offered more than a couple of upbeat diversions from any business worries, including several studio screenings of upcoming films. Those included a pair of George Clooney pics: Overture Film's quirky comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and Paramount's book-adaptation "Up in the Air."

Introducing the latter screening, director Jason Reitman said he hopes exhibs will support the pic as fervently as they did his film "Juno" after it was screened at ShowEast a couple years ago. Par vice chairman Rob Moore similarly thanked the audience of theater owners for their support over the years.

"There's nothing more important to us than the theatrical motion picture experience," Moore said.

The remark seemed a well-timed reassurance for those in the exhibition community who criticized Par for slotting its DVD release of "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" within three months of the summer tentpole's theatrical release.

For its part, ShowEast suffered a bit of recessionary squeeze in its registration and booth totals this year. But despite a 20% dip in the former and 10% downtick in the latter, show organizers said they are pleased with the latest installment of the confab.

"Overall, we're very happy with the week," ShowEast managing director Bob Sunshine said. "The people who came accomplished what they wanted to. The Latin American contingent was very pleased with the show's international day on Monday, and everybody who was here had a good week."

The confab concluded its 25th anniversary edition with an awards gala.

Cinema Concepts' Steward Harnell accepted the Show E Award for career achievement, AMC's Sonny Gourley received the Salah Hassanein Humanitarian Award, and Warner Bros.' Kelly O'Connor was feted for distinguished industry service.