ShoWest: Exhibitors looking to future

Execs say innovation is key to driving attendance, revenue

LAS VEGAS -- A modest version of the annual confab compared with earlier years, ShoWest 2009 offered this intriguing snapshot of the exhibition business: an industry in search of its future self.

"The way the industry has grown over the past decade and a half is not going to be the way we grow in the future," AMC Entertainment CEO Gerry Lopez said this week.

Instead of growth through acquisitions and dramatic internal expansion, future attendance and revenue gains will have to be driven by industry innovation, Lopez said. Digital and 3-D presentation, giant-screen partnerships with Imax and similar other initiatives will be among the most vital steps in maintaining a growth tract for exhibition, he added.

"All of those are going to continue to differentiate the theatrical experience from any other movie experience," Lopez said. "And at AMC, we're also going to be more aggressive about expanding our food and beverage experience."

Select expansion of the major circuits will resume once the credit crunch eases, and it's expected that the 1,500 screens National Amusement has up for sale eventually will draw offers by exhibitors looking to bolster market presence in various regions.

On Thursday, AMC announced an innovative program directed at patrons with autism. For select showtimes of movies featured in its new Sensory Friend Films program, AMC will turn up auditorium lights slightly, turn down the theater's sound a bit and relax no-talking rules.

The program began with an ad hoc initiative in a handful of venues after parents contacted a theater manager about needs of children with autism. That produced a pilot project, which AMC decided to expand throughout its circuit.

"That's a real 'do-the-right-thing' story," Lopez said.

Alternative programming discussed at the confab amounts to more of a do-the-clever-thing ploy. Ballet and opera have been big hits, but presentation and scheduling can be key -- and not all non-movie programming will succeed.

"Some things work, others don't," Harkins Theatres chief Dan Harkins said during one panel discussion.

Some exhibitors report a recent flattening of their concession revenue. But Carmike Cinemas, which recently introduced "Stimulus Tuesdays" featuring dollar drinks and popcorn, isn't one of them.

"I can't say too much about our current numbers right now, but let's just say we're not seeing that," Carmike chairman David Passman said.

Attendance at ShoWest was off 15% from last year's show at 2,450 attendees, and booths on the trade show floor also were down a bit. The declines are a reflection of industry cost containments that have prompted companies to send fewer reps to the show.

"The companies have just cut back," said ShoWest co-managing director Mitch Neuhauser, who noted that individual companies sent fewer representatives this year.

"But there are some circuits here who have gone above and beyond," Neuhauser added. "So considering the economy, support from the industry has been really strong."

A curtailment in convention activity has been apparent for some time in Las Vegasby way of shorter taxi lines, deals on hotel-room bookings and generally more sedate business events citywide.

At ShoWest 2009, there were fewer lavish studio presentations and even studio screenings seemed a tad less eventful than in most years. But exhibitors, ebullient over the recently robust boxoffice the industry has been enjoying, seemed to have a good time at the show and elsewhere around town.

"Last night we went to see Penn & Teller," said Kris Philips, a manager at Orca Theatres' multiplex near Provo, Utah. "That was fun."

ShoWest was set to conclude its four-day run at the Bally's and Paris hotels with a Thursday night awards gala.
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