ShowEast: Content and discontent

How can exhibitors reverse the trend of stagnant ticket sales?

The contrast has been startling.

All year, movie theater owners attending trade shows in the U.S. and abroad have oozed optimism, even as the recession constricted attendance and show booths at the confabs. Booming boxoffice and rising revenue from 3D cinema are the main reasons for their bullishness.

But while boxoffice grosses are up about 5% on a year-over-year basis, ticket sales are roughly flat compared with a year ago and theater attendance actually dipped in the summer. As exhibitors trek to central Florida for ShowEast, many are strategizing about what is necessary to reverse the trend and convince more people to go to the movies.

"If you go back over the past 40 years, every time we've had a peak in admissions we had to work our way back up to there in increments," notes National Association of Theatre Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran. "Our last admissions record in 2004 was a peak that we hadn't hit since 1958."

So how might the industry climb that mountain more quickly?

"It mostly has to do with product mix," the NATO exec suggests. "For some time, theater owners have been asking for a better mix of products, both at any one time and throughout the year. The weak spots are still late spring and the fall. I don't know how many more blockbusters you can fit into summer. The room for growth is in the spring and the fall."

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Spreading films more evenly throughout the year would ease logjams in more popular programming months, he says, but it would also help if distributors managed film variety better.

"We had a period recently where all the releases were R-rated films, and that's not good," Corcoran says. "It tells a certain percentage of the audience to stay away."

AMC Entertainment chief Gerry Lopez -- attending his first ShowEast after his appointment atop the nation's second-largest circuit in March -- believes increased niche programming is needed to keep pace with fractionalized consumer tastes.

"That isn't to say we have too many blockbusters," Lopez says. "The issue is whether we can be more than a one-trick pony and become more successful with films that appeal to the more individualized audiences."

On the studio side, Disney distribution president Chuck Viane agrees that industry success or failure tends to be "product driven." But he adds that 3D has come on so strongly lately that a new attendance high can be attained sooner rather than later.

Viane also points to the recent rise of so-called alternative programming -- concerts, sporting events and other nontraditional fare, which theaters increasingly feature in nonpeak hours.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility that they will be doing sports on one night and another night doing concerts and on another films," Viane says. "As long as the studios are delivering that content, I think it's a great chance to sell more tickets."

Sony has been the most active in setting up a dedicated business unit for alternative programming. But Viane says Disney soon will get into the game, and he expects most other majors to do the same.

Cinemark CEO Alan Stock feels good about the current marketplace but wonders whether the initial novelty factor of 3D might wear off.

"We're getting a bump now from 3D and will into the future," Stock says. "The real question is, how long into the future will that continue?"

For now, 3D seems to be enhancing attendance, he adds. "It piques people's interest and gets them more interested in going to the movies."

But Fox distribution boss Bruce Snyder cautions against putting too much faith in mere novelty.

"A bad movie in 3D is a bad movie," he says.

Warner Bros. distribution head Dan Fellman notes a plethora of entertainment options already available to today's moviegoers and figures Hollywood is holding its ground pretty well.

"You can't look at just one part of the equation like domestic boxoffice," Fellman says. "The international business is growing by leaps and bounds, for instance. So as an industry we can hold our heads up high. I think we're doing terrific."

ShowEast attendance will be down this year because of the economy, with managing director Robert Sunshine predicting a decline of about 20%, or 800-850 paid registrants. Trade show participation will be down about 10%.

The confab's four-day run kicks off today with international day, whose slate presentations and panels draw attendees from throughout Latin America and elsewhere. Programming later in the week will focus on digital-cinema financing, digital audio for theaters, movie marketing and the always-popular film screenings.

Nielsen Film Group -- which, like The Hollywood Reporter, is operated by Nielsen Business Media -- had planned to move ShowEast to Miami Beach this year. But a designated hotel couldn't handle many of the confab's needs, so ShowEast has returned to the local Marriott through 2010.

As for the prospect of a smaller show this year, longtime participants appear unrattled.

"If an exhibitor only sends four people instead of 40, but they're the decisionmakers, well, I'm fine with that," Sony Electronics' Gary Johns says. "The issue isn't how many people come, but which ones."

Sony will use the show to demo its new SRX-R320 digital projector, touted as a smaller-but-equal replacement for previous d-cinema hardware. Other d-cinema vendors such as Barco, Christie and NEC also will staff large booths.

Several screenings by studio and indie distributors will be held off-site as usual at Downtown Disney's AMC Pleasure Island multiplex. Films to be screened include Sony's "2012," Warners' college football drama "The Blind Side," Lionsgate's horror pic "Daybreakers" and Apparition's period drama "The Young Victoria."

Despite the challenges in luring moviegoers, Sunshine says the industry is taking the right steps toward keeping the theatrical experience unique in a sea of entertainment options.

"People will start coming back to the movies because of digital and 3D," Sunshine says. "Alternative content is on the cusp, and cinema advertising is staring to grow. So I'm very bullish on this industry."