Some skipped ShowEast

Economy, downsizing hurt attendance, but value remains

ORLANDO -- The theatrical business may be recession-resistant, but it's hardly impervious to economic vagaries.

ShowEast is dominated by mom-and-pop theater owners, in contrast to the larger circuits whose execs predominate at the larger ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in the spring. But if smaller-fry operators are most likely to need the confab's seminars on theater management or demos of digital cinema, they also can be the first to feel the pinch of economic downturns and pull back on expenditures like a four-day trip to Orlando for a trade show.

ShowEast 2008, which concluded its four-day run here Thursday, seemed to reflect such tough realities.

"People have cut back," ShowEast co-managing director Mitch Neuhauser acknowledged. "But we're happy and believe the most important people who need to be here were still here."

Registration fell by about 100 attendees this year, marking a 9% dip from 1,038 paid showgoers a year ago.

It didn't help that Warner Bros. shut its Picturehouse specialty unit and dramatically downsized the New Line division, Neuhauser said. Consolidation also continued in the exhibition industry, with Regal taking over the Consolidated Theatres chain this year.

Booths on the trade show floor were down by 18 to 235, a 9% decline from ShowEast 2007.

Seminars this year -- as at all exhibition confabs during the past couple of years -- largely focused on d-cinema and 3-D projection. But though panelists encouraged the assembled exhibitors to get on board with digital conversions, they also acknowledged that the digital revolution is effectively on hold while Wall Street gets its house in order.

As a result of the recent credit crunch, industry finance schemes to fund screen conversions are delayed for several weeks or even months, attendees learned.

NATO's Cinema Buying Group -- essentially a clearinghouse for conversion support serving smaller members of the industry trade group -- met during the confab, and the group is actively taking applications for system rollouts. CBG is a key AccessIT ally in signing up circuits for screen conversions.

Manufacturers of various digital-projection systems also were on hand to try to get a piece of the d-cinema action. Word circulated Thursday that Sony Electronics was deep in talks with AMC about the possible purchase of thousands of its systems, but it was unclear when or if such an agreement might be finalized.

Other topics figuring in conversations around the convention included whether upcoming studio slates looked likely to produce big boxoffice. The immediate marketplace seems overly full of iffy films, but there appeared to be some consensus that the next couple of months will be winners for the industry.

"Generally, exhibitors want more choices," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "But there's kind of a bell curve, in which you reach a point where there are so many marketing messages out there that you can't cut through with the marketing."

This year, Disney's Nov. 21 opener "Bolt" and Universal's Dec. 5 release "Frost/Nixon" were among titles screened by majors at the confab. Other screenings spotlighted such indie releases as the Weinstein Co.'s "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" (Oct. 31) and Overture's "Nothing Like the Holidays" (Dec. 12).

At the confab's closing awards gala Thursday night, attendees appeared relatively upbeat about boxoffice prospects for the next couple of quarters -- or in any event had settled in for an enjoyable evening of dinner, drinks and industry kudos.

"This is a time to celebrate the motion picture industry!" Warner Bros. exec vp distribution and gala emcee Jeff Goldstein declared.

Award recipients included MGM distribution president Clark Woods, who was honored with the Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award for his work with a host of charitable organizations.

Producer Ed Zwick was feted with the Kodak Award for excellence in filmmaking. Carmike's Larry Collins copped the Show E Award for industry contributions, while Nancy Kluter was honored for distinguished service.

Meanwhile, though ShowEast is scheduled for a change of venue to Miami Beach next year, there appears to be a possibility that the confab will return once again to the Marriott Orlando World Center. The hospitality complex has been ShowEast's home since a move from Atlantic City in 2000.