Labor pains won't go away

Studios dread potential SAG strife

More ShoWest coverage on page 8.

LAS VEGAS — Studio executives insisted Wednesday that the after-effects of the Hollywood writers strike haven't hurt their movie-release plans through summer 2009.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the looming SAG negotiations can screw up things beyond then.

"It's not a foregone conclusion that it's going to work itself out," Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Jeff Black said of the actors' contract talks.

Other film executives participating in a "Hollywood Elite" panel discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter editor Elizabeth Guider also expressed concern that pre-negotiations sabre-rattling by SAG could presage another troublesome labor dispute.

"If the SAG situation doesn't resolve itself fairly quickly, then you do start to develop a situation where there might be a little gap (in) late 2009," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said.

Of course, with most distributors lamenting the recent crush of releases over competitive weekends, having fewer films in the pipeline might not be such a bad thing, he added.

"People would start to spread out their slates," Moore said.

Disney Motion Picture Group president Mark Zoradi noted that his studio already has moved to cut annual releasing activities to about 12-14 films per year, with a pair of animation tentpoles slotted in the summer and holiday periods.

Sony is on the other end of the scale, still releasing upward of 20 films annually, including Screen Gems titles, Blake noted.

Fewer prestige titles will get released this fall following last fall's problematic crush of adult-targeted films, Universal worldwide marketing and distribution president Adam Fogelson said.

Releasing trends tend to be cyclical, Fogelson added. But he also noted Uni that executives embrace a recent movement toward slotting films throughout the calendar year.

"The weekend after Labor Day and the one after Thanksgiving do tend to offer some problems," Fogelson said. "But generally speaking, there are like 49 or 50 weekends throughout the year that can work."

Getting producers to endorse unconventional release slots can be tough, Moore said.

"The most common refrain you have when you're looking at a release date is, 'What other movie has worked in that window?' " the Par executive said.

Meanwhile, the increased use of Internet marketing, especially for young-skewing films, means campaigns have to begin six to eight months ahead of release dates if they are to succeed in generating prerelease buzz, executives noted.

The Internet has become a good additional resource for distribution clips and trailers to hype films, they said.

"(But) the theater is absolutely the best place to get that message out," Fogelson said, as other panelists nodded in agreement over the importance of theatrical trailers.

There also was broad consensus on the panel that digital cinema finally has arrived on the exhibition scene in a meaningful way and soon should ease distributors' costs and logistical challenges considerably.

"The next 24 months are really the tipping point for digital, certainly in the U.S. and Canada," Zoradi said. "International is 12-24 months behind, relative to digital."

And that's a problem, Moore said. Greater numbers of digital screens are needed overseas as well as boosted foreign 3-D installations, he stressed.

The big challenge right now is catching international up," he said. "When you are asking that question — should we make this movie in 3-D? — it's hard right now because the international piece of that equation isn't there yet."

The panel discussion was part of a ShoWest panel co-sponsored by Facebook, used by many studios in viral marketing campaigns, and Sony Electronics, which is pushing exhibitors to install its 4K-resolution digital-projection systems.

"Sometimes good enough is not good enough," said Gary Johns, vp at Sony Digital Cinema Systems. "In the early days of (HDTV), you sometimes heard people say, 'Why high-def? Standard-definition television is good enough.' You don't hear anybody say that anymore."

ShoWest, which has been running since Monday at the Bally's and Paris hotels here, concludes tonight with an awards gala.