I arrived at the Paris Hotel and Casino at around 1PM, a bit too late for the 12PM start of ShoWest's first major event, the International Day Luncheon, which feted two of the people responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, director Ang Lee (recipient of the International Achievement in Filmmaking Award) and star Michelle Yeoh (who was named International Star of the Year). Even if I had arrived before noon, I probably wouldn't have gotten in anyway, for it took me a good 20 minutes to locate the press room (which was pretty clearly marked by a sign outside of it--maybe it's time for new glasses). When I did locate it, it was only to find it closed for lunch, leaving me some time to explore the Hollywood-ified halls of the Paris' Centre de Conventions.
Upon entering this wing of the Paris, one is first greeted by the perky young women who shove copies of Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter into everyone’s faces, and then a Jumbotron that runs an endless loop of trailers and Entertainment Tonight segments on award honorees produced exclusively for the convention. As startling as it is to see Mary Hart blown to such large proportions, even that sight was overwhelmed by the sheer number of various movie posters that were everywhere--on walls, on stands, in big display cases, behind the check-in booths, even on the floor. Of course, some posters made stronger impressions than others: the teaser image for the Lord of the Rings trilogy caught my eye, as were the posters that were obviously put together just for this event touting Artisan's Made, the big Jon Favreau/Vince Vaughn reunion (that Favreau also wrote and directed); Miramax's teaser for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York; and Miramax/Dimension's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the final screen exploit of Kevin Smith's fan favorite duo (though it must be said that the poster cooked up by the studio was remarkably slapdash). Making an impression for me in a negative sense was the poster for the 'Max's The Shipping News, which secured its place in next year's Best Picture Academy Award race with the disclaimer "a film by Lasse Hallström." (As if there needed to be any more Oscar insurance, the film stars Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench.)
Once I did get a chance to check in, there were a few dead hours before the opening of the demonstration rooms and trade show in the adjoining Bally's Hotel and Casino. With the bulk of ShoWest media coverage focusing on studios unveiling their release slates for the year and the various celebrities they trot out, the fact that the event is mostly a business affair for the motion picture exhibition industry often gets ignored completely. That fact is unavoidable, however, on the large showroom floor. Paramount's big Tomb Raider-themed booth notwithstanding (more on that later), the studio presence at the trade show is nonexistent, and anything and everything involved in the presentation of movies in theatres. And if you know anything about the exhibition industry, you know that theatre owners earn most of their money through the concession stand--which meant that just about every other booth at the trade show offered some type of free food product, be it a beverage, popcorn, pretzels, pizza, hot dogs, or, above all else, candy. The term "kid in a candy store" would not only be appropriate but dead-on accurate, for boxes and bags of sugary stuff were all around, ready for the taking. It was like one of those bogus alcoholic recovery programs, except for sugar addicts; there was more than enough of it to make even the sweetest tooths sick to their stomach and want to swear off candy for the rest of their lives. Other products of interest to theatre owners were also on display: luxury seating, trays for food and drink that are built into seat armrests; stereo sound systems; ticket printing systems; innovations in movie marquees; carpet and reupholstery services.
With so many dealers in so large a room (actually, two large adjoining rooms), it took a certain level of creativity and straight-up weirdness to stand out from the pack, and there were a few more unusual items for everyone to see. One large booth had an elaborate mock-theatre setup to sell the Vibro-Transducer, which makes seats vibrate according to a film's soundtrack. The film curiously chosen to demonstrate the system was Timothy Dalton's first adventure as James Bond, The Living Daylights. The vibrating seats do add a soothing new dimension to moviegoing (all the more welcome if you're watching a Dalton 007 film), but I don't see many theatre owners shelling out the cash to install what is, in the end, just a costly gimmick. The strangest food item had to be the BurgerPipe, which is essentially a hot dog-shaped hamburger that comes in various flavors, "Cheeseburger" being the one I tried. It's not nearly as vile as it sounds, but let it be said that I can go on to live a happy life without ever tasting it again. A product not necessarily strange but definitely off the beaten path was Vrroom, a non-carbonated, Gatorade-like fruit drink enriched with ginseng and gingko biloba. Apparently it was a bit too unusual for most, for I was one of the few people to approach the booth. I felt kind of sad for the very nice sales rep; a couple of sentences into our conversation she somewhat dejectedly said, "You're press, aren't you?"--suggesting she didn't get many business calls from theatre owners.
Two booths, one lavish, the other far less so, were the talk of the trade show. One was, not surprisingly, the sole studio representation, Paramount's Tomb Raider booth. In a clever tie-in to the forthcoming Angelina Jolie starrer based on the popular video game, many people waited in line for the chance to dress in a parka, brandish a couple of prop Uzis, act in front of a green screen, and be inserted into mine a shaft-set action sequence--all of it captured on videotape, of course. The show's other talked-about booth centered around a low-tech piece of plastic called the Popcorn Fork. Those who like lots of mock butter flavoring on their popcorn needn't worry about greasy hands anymore with this three-pronged instrument that picks up popped kernels like a pair of chopsticks. But if that weren't enough, remove the cap on the non-pronged end, and you reveal a built-in salt shaker! (insert oohs and ahhs here)
The excitement of opening night at the trade show dissipated when most conventioneers took shuttle buses to the Orleans Hotel and Casino for the evening's big event, "ShoWest Showcase: An Evening of Independent Film." A total of five films--Fine Line Features' The Anniversary Party, written, directed by, and starring Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh; the Italian comedy Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani), from First Look Pictures; Sony Pictures Classics' Brother, from Japanese king of all media Takeshi Kitano; USA Films' One Night at McCool's, starring Liv Tyler, Matt Dillon, and Michael Douglas; and Fox Searchlight's Sexy Beast, with Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone--were screened simultaneously, twice each, at the Century's Orleans 12 Theatre. In the lobby between the 7:00pm and 10:00pm shows, a food-and-drink reception took place, highlighted by live music and a drawing for a Kodak digital camera. That a number of names had to be drawn before someone cared enough to accept the prize sort of echoed the exhibitor's general lack of enthusiasm over a different type of digital technology that was shoved down the collective throat at the convention, digital projection.