Studios warned on int'l trade barriers

The chief cheerleader for Hollywood studios warned exhibitors assembled here Tuesday that the global economic crisis could trigger calls for protectionist trade policies in some countries. That would be harmful to industry interests anywhere, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman told a ShoWest audience.

"Now is not the time to build walls," Glickman said. "It's time to work toward solutions of broad, mutual benefit. Whether it's Indian films, U.K. films, French films, American films or the many others, it's important culturally, diplomatically and economically that we strive toward openness and that we share our stories around the world, growing together rather than apart."

A trend toward more restrictive trade policies would hit Hollywood especially hard, he told reporters in a briefing held after his address.

"Walls built can hurt industries that export, and ours is one of the biggest export industries in the world," Glickman said.

One thing the MPAA topper did not dish was the usual data on industry costs. For 20 years, the MPAA has used ShoWest as a forum for releasing estimates on average film production and marketing expenses of its member studios. Not this time.

"I have always been troubled by these figures because they are averages," said Glickman, in his fifth year of representing the MPAA at ShoWest since taking over for the late Jack Valenti.

Glickman added that changes in the ways films are financed complicate how the numbers should be interpreted. But he said the association is probing ways of "sharing these numbers with you in a way that makes sense."

Not that there wasn't a plethora of data distributed after the MPAA presentation, which was accompanied by an address by John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

NATO circulated an average ticket price of $7.18 for 2008. Combined with the MPAA's domestic boxoffice tally of $9.8 billion — up almost 2% from a year earlier — that resulted in a downtick of less than 1% in admissions to 1.36 billion tickets sold last year.

Boxoffice has produced an admissions uptick of about 8% during the first 10 weeks of 2009, the MPAA estimated.

"All in all, the cinema industry is doing remarkably well during very difficult times," Fithian said. "Why is this happening? Most importantly, our studio partners have produced quality movies across multiple genres appealing to all demographic segments and distributed in every month of the year."

Successful releases are showing sturdy legs of late, he added.

"Five 2009 wide releases have had second-weekend drops of 30% or less, compared to zero such holds in the same time period in 2008," Fithian noted.

The NATO topper also lauded increased stability in the nation's screen count after a period of overbuilding. Older venues have been closed, and state-of-the-art theaters have taken their place, with a higher screen count per venue but generally lower seat counts per auditorium.

NATO stats show U.S. screens up less than 3% from a year earlier, with 38,939 screens by the end of 2008.

Among other industry data:

Fithian was particularly bullish on the 3-D trend.

"3-D is a game-changer," he said. "The last game-changer was sound."

The industrywide presentations followed a humor-laden keynote address by Warner Bros. president Alan Horn.

"This is a great turnout," Horn said, gazing out at the packed, mammoth Paris hotel theater. "It's hard not to think, 'If you had all been at "Watchmen" and multiply that number by $10. …"

The studio exec introduced trailers for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and three other upcoming Warners releases, assisted by Robert Downey Jr. ("Sherlock Holmes") and directors McG ("Terminator Salvation") and Todd Phillips ("The Hangover").

"Our take on 'Sherlock Holmes' is going so much back to the source material," Downey said.

Downey was invited to join the project by producer Joel Silver shortly after the actor's success with "Iron Man." But he said "Holmes" helmer Guy Ritchie initially considered Downey too old to play the fictional sleuth.

"I told him I was getting up in the morning and getting going with the movie, so we had better get together on whatever needed to be worked out," Downey said with a mischievous grin. (partialdiff)