The week's festivities officially kicked off at the Paris's Théatre des Arts with the opening ceremony. Last year, I was able to enhance my recap of this and various other events with photos. However, at this year's events cameras of any kind--still or video--were forbidden from the theatres due to piracy concerns. It's a good idea in theory, but with deeper thought it makes little sense. First of all, what good is a still photo of something being projected onto a screen? Second of all, this is a convention for movie exhibitors; why would anyone in attendance be interested in shooting their own business in the foot by making pirated advance copies of films--at a convention attended by the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, no less? Ultimately, it just hinders coverage and publicity of the convention as a whole. Granted, there were one or two designated photographers around to take pictures of the key speakers and presentations, but most outlets would opt to not run photos at all, or, in the worst cases, decide to simply not cover events. The no-photo policy also could not have pleased the theatre chain delegates, as I imagine the photos they were once allowed to take were a subtle, but definitely important, morale booster of sorts. If you ask me, the one object they should have searched for and confiscated are cell phones, for ringing could be heard throughout the week at screenings and presentations. One would think theatre owners, of all people, would know to turn off their phones during such things.
But enough ranting and on with the show. This year's designated presenter of the 2002 edition of $100-million-plus grosser reel was Neal H. Moritz, who produced two of the 26 films to cross that barrier last year: Sweet Home Alabama and xXx. The other films featured in the fast-paced reel edited by Kevin Irvine and presented in Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema projection were A Beautiful Mind, Black Hawk Down, The Bourne Identity, Catch Me If You Can, Die Another Day, 8 Mile, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Men in Black II, Minority Report, Mr. Deeds (which screened at last year's ShoWest), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (another ShoWest '02 graduate), The Ring, Road to Perdition, The Santa Clause 2, Scooby-Doo, Signs, Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones, The Sum of All Fears, and Vanilla Sky. Moritz concluded his portion of the program by unveiling a preliminary teaser for one of his $100-million-plus hopefuls for this summer, the big screen adaptation of S.W.A.T. It was hard to draw any conclusions about the film from the quick-cut, action-heavy spot except what was already known: the film's cast is impressive--Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, LL Cool J, Michelle Rodriguez. (We'll kindly ignore Olivier Martinez's presence as the baddie for argument's sake.) The last shot of the teaser featured the S.W.A.T. guys at dinner singing the TV show's famously rockin' theme song. One hopes that the actual song is amply used by director Clark Johnson in the final product.
Hype made way for business as MPAA president Jack Valenti made his annual address. Valenti's characteristically metaphor-heavy (and, consequently, often murky) oration did cover a few noteworthy points, particularly the fact that while 2002 was another record box office year, such gains were offset by the rises in costs of making and promoting motion pictures. However, the good news outweighed the bad as the record box office take was generated by the highest number of movie theatre admissions in over forty years. But Valenti's speech wasn't all about hard financial statistics; after all, what speech of his would be complete without some indulgent back-patting over the much-embattled ratings system--though, in all fairness, his remarks weren't entirely self-serving, for he complimented exhibitors for successfully enforcing the system.
I couldn't help but think how much more forcefully Valenti's points would have been made had they been delivered by National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian. As has become annual tradition, Fithian followed Valenti with his own address--and some self-deprecating remarks about how difficult it is to follow Valenti's speech. Note to Mr. Fithian: I, for one, consider Valenti's annual speech as a mere warm-up to yours. I've always found Fithian to me a far more engaging and, hence, effective speaker, and his address this year just reinforced my opinion. He reiterated some points made by Valenti, such as the high admissions in 2002 (biggest since 1957) and ratings system enforcement, in a clearer, more concise manner. Foremost on Fithian's mind, however, was the issue of digital cinema, and he commended exhibitors for not rushing headlong into purchasing systems--especially after George Lucas threatened to release Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones only on digitally-equipped screens. In fact, Fithian's strong stance against such a rushed transition not so surprisingly and rather amusingly prompted a flood of hate e-mails from Lucas fanboys. Not that Fithian is dead set against such a transition; he reported that NATO is closely working with Digital Cinema Initiatives on developing a working standard for digital projection and a slow, organized transition to the system, and by the end of the year they are expected to have all the proper technical specifications as well as a workable business model.
With business matters squared away, it was time to present the big exhibitors award of the event: ShoWester of the Year, and this year's recipient was Phil Harris of Signature Theatres. Unlike most award winners, Harris gave an amusing, tongue-in-cheek acceptance speech that described the physiological symptoms of having to speak following Fithian and Valenti.
I am dismayed, though not terribly surprised, to report that nearly half of the audience did not stay in the theatre for the screening of Fox Searchlight's In America. Their loss, I say--not only did they miss a terrific film, they missed an appearance by the film's director, Jim Sheridan, who entertained the remaining audience members by anecdotes about filming and his past with a generous dollop of dry Irish wit.
Immediately following the screening, the action shifted to the Paris Ballroom for the Searchlight co-sponsored opening day luncheon, the first such ShoWest luncheon to be sponsored by a studio's specialty division. Not so shockingly, all of those who apparently skipped out on the screening were back in force for the free meal--and who can blame them, for the convention can always be counted on to provide a classy meal. "Classy" doesn't necessarily equate to "filling," however, as this afternoon's menu was decidedly on the very light (and, hence, very California) side. First, a medley of fruit (including grapes, blueberries, strawberries and cantaloupe and pineapple chunks) was served in martini glasses. Then came a tasty chicken caesar salad. But just when you were expecting a main course, suddenly came dessert--a nice, rich tiramisu. It almost seemed like a ploy to quasi-starve people to attend that night's not-so-glamorous dinner (though, if that was the case, the organizers were far less than successful, as I will mention later).
Of course, it being a luncheon sponsored by both a studio division and technology company--Christie--some business had to be taken care of alongside the basic human need for nourishment. The program got underway prior to the meal with an introduction by Paul Richardson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Landmark Theatres, who presented a couple of those mysterious aqua-boxed sponsor awards to Jack Kline, President of Christie USA; and Craig Sholder, Director of Sales for Christie USA. The company then unveiled a new 35mm film projector model called the CineX35.
Stephen Gilula, President of Distribution for Searchlight, later picked up the program reins, and proceeded to introduce Jim Sheridan to the stage. While Sheridan was relaxed and seemed to quite enjoy speaking to the audience earlier in the day, he seemed a bit more nervous and uncomfortable. Perhaps that was because he was brought onstage without a clear idea of what he was supposed to do. At the Théatre des Arts, he was introducing the film; at the luncheon, he seemed to be more or less forced on stage with orders to "tell stories." Nonetheless, as distracted as he appeared to be, Sheridan was still quite likable and entertaining as he related some anecdotes, including one involving his youth with fellow filmmaker Neil Jordan.
Jordan's Bob le Flambeur remake The Good Thief and Sheridan's In America were among the films spotlighted in Searchlight's product reel, which offered a mix of trailers, preliminary teasers and scene snippets from their 2003 slate. A number of the trailers were ones that had already received play prior to the convention; the films promoted in these spots were The Good Thief; the worldwide sensation Bend It Like Beckham; John Malkovich's rather blah directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs, starring Javier Bardem; the Merchant Ivory romantic comedy Le Divorce, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts; and Danny Boyle's virus thriller (not Sandra Bullock sequel) 28 Days Later.
The more noteworthy new clips/titles:
L'Auberge Espagnole: Multilingual comedy in which a French exchange student in Spain learns about life and love while sharing an apartment with a cross-section of Europeans. The film, which co-stars Amélie herself, Audrey Tautou, looks to be frothy fromage, but perhaps the most distinctive thing about the spot is that it's one of the rare trailers from a major studio (albeit a boutique division, but still rare) to employ subtitles.
Garage Days: On paper, this film seems an odd fit for the visionary imagination of director Alex Proyas since it is about an Australian garage band striving for success. The clip that was screened, however, proved that perception wrong. The scene, set primarily at a dinner table, is a bit hard to describe, particularly since it was divorced from context, but it made hilarious use of some startling and inventive visual effects.
The Cannibal's Daughter: Unlike the one for L'Auberge Espagnole, this spot for this Spanish-language drama went the typical studio route of hiding the spoken tongue, instead employing on-screen text to summarize this drama about a woman (Cecilia Roth) who finds spiritual liberation when her husband is kidnapped.
thirteen: The scene screened from this Sundance buzz magnet pretty well summed up the film's story about the struggles between a mother (Holly Hunter) and her growing-up-too-fast 13-year-old daughter (Evan Rachel Wood)--even if the sound quality of the clip was less than ideal.
Club Dread: More muddy sound plagued the raunchy, slapsticky excerpt from the latest wacky comedy by the comedy troupe Broken Lizard, set at a beach resort. The scene, involving bedroom shenanigans with a gymnast, is the type of silliness one would expect from the guys who brought you Super Troopers--though with the awful trailer for that actually rather entertaining film in mind, one hopes that there are far better gags awaiting in the final film.
The Clearing: A brief, stage-setting scene was shown for this prestige project in which a well-to-do man is kidnapped by an average joe and held for ransom. With Robert Redford (as the victim), Willem Dafoe (as the kidnapper) and Helen Mirren (as Redford's wife) leading the cast, this looks like it could be serious awards bait.
Johnson Family Vacation: No footage was available for this self-explanatory road comedy starring Cedric the Entertainer, so instead a little animated segment featuring a Cedric caricature travelling along a map was shown.
The Dreamers: No film on the Searchlight slate got quite as strong of a push (unintended or not) as the latest film from Bernardo Bertolucci. Before this two-minute teaser was shown, there was a brief intermission so children or other sensitive viewers could leave due to the graphic, potentially offensive content. Nothing, or should I say very little, could live up to such build up, and, indeed, this teaser didn't. Paris in 1968 is the setting, and the players are an American student (Michael Pitt) and a pair of French sibling students who become erotically entangled. While the clip didn't shy away from nudity or strong suggestions of incestuous ménage-à-trois action, my warped self found it all to be a rather tame letdown; that said, I am sufficiently intrigued to want to see the entire film when it reaches screens late this year.
At each place setting, there was a free Fox Searchlight light pen and a Fox/Fox Searchlight 2003 desk calendar.
Further proof that the economy is in rough shape came at the annual trade show. Freebies would traditionally fly around liberally as the various companies pimping their snack foods, sound systems, upholstery services and other products related to film exhibition would be generous with samples and other goodies in an attempt to woo the exhibitor investment dollar. However, this year, a new air of stinginess filled the Grand Ballroom and Events Center at Bally's. Not that the many plastic bags being given away at various booths were necessarily going to waste; there just wasn't as much stuff to put in them as numerous candy companies didn't offer many samples. The fresh edibles were also given in smaller portions; for the first day, leading hot dog supplier Eisenberg's (which apparently scared away all the competition of previous years, for they were the only hot dog company on the floor this year) cut each hot dog in thirds rather than halves. That said, certain companies could be counted on to be just as generous as they'd always been--namely Just Born, Inc., manufacturers of Hot Tamales, Jolly Joes and the various Mike and Ike flavors; and Icee, which served everything from their eponymous frozen drink to cookies and stuffed pretzels at their considerably expanded display.
The Icee display
A look at some of the more noteworthy trade show booths:
With Universal directing their dollars toward the closing day luncheon, this year Paramount was once again the only studio holding real estate on the trade show floor. Given the sensation caused by their Lara Croft: Tomb Raider themed booth two years ago, it's not at all surprising that the film's sequel, The Cradle of Life, was at the center of this year's display. But after the green-screen video fun of the original Tomb Raider booth and last year's bizarre interactive theater piece in support of K-19 the Widowmaker, this year's booth was dismayingly unimaginative. Inside a faux cavern, props and costumes from the film were on display and the fairly enticing new teaser trailer for the film--and taped shout-outs to ShoWest patrons from director Jan DeBont and star Angelina Jolie--played on a screen. Similar lack of imagination went into this year's Paramount goody bag, which I was able to receive for the first time due to my passport status. The black Cradle of Life tote bag was extremely heavy, but not because it was filled with tons of promo items; in fact, there were only two: a large plastic, baby bottle-shaped bank for the Nickelodeon franchise crossover film Rugrats Go Wild; and--the cause of the weight problem--a 16-inch replica of one of those terracotta statues Lara fights in the film. It's an undeniably neat item, but a terribly impractical one since patrons had to lug that heavy bag all around the trade show. Perhaps the studio should have made them half the size (and then come up with other promo items for other films)?
The dueling soft drink giants didn't radically change their displays from the previous year--nor, thankfully, did they change their policy of offering unlimited free drinks. Coke basically trotted out its large, shiny display from the previous year, but with new promotional tie-in posters for The Matrix sequels to go alongside the displays and video screens trumpeting their annual Refreshing Filmmaker Award (more on that in Day 4). Pepsi, on the other hand, did boast a larger set-up complete with upstairs private conference room, but the basic design and color scheme of the place remained the same, albeit with up-to-the-minute displays trumpeting tie-in campaigns with Universal releases The Hulk and 2 Fast 2 Furious replacing last year's oversize images of the company's now-former commercial starlet, Britney Spears.
New and interesting food items weren't in short supply this year, however. After a one-year absence, the hot dog alternative known as the BurgerPipe was back, and in a big way--promoted alongside the original beef model was (drumroll please)... the ChickenPipe. If that weren't enough, there's a whole line of more "upscale" items called Gourmet Grillers.
Ruiz Foods introduced a non-hot dog alternative for concession stand roller grills: Tornados, which are mini burritos and tamales that come in a variety of flavors. It's surprising that no one ever thought of this before.
I love BonBons as much as the next guy, but I must honestly say that Triton International's Banana Bits are poised to give them a run for their money. Banana Bits are frozen dark chocolate or white chocolate-coated banana slices that come either with or without nuts. Here's hoping these tasty treats catch on.
Of all the companies pushing in-theatre technologies, Deterministic Systems, Inc. stood out with its Funsonic system, which uses specially equipped seats to make patrons feel low frequency vibrations while watching films. To demonstrate the process, the company had a mini-theatre set-up where excerpts of Black Hawk Down were shown--and, needless to say, such a loud film was ideal application for the technology. The shaking seats do offer an intriguing added dimension to the moviegoing experience, but the system seems more suited to not so much actual theatres than home ones--though it would perhaps be a fit for the more immersive experience of large format cinemas.
Digital projection lorded over the opening night dinner at the Paris Ballroom, as DLP Cinema, who provided ShoWest with a new prototype projector for all of the convention's digital programs throughout the week; and Boeing Digital Cinema were the event's official sponsors. After Doug Darrow, DLP's Business Manager of Commercial Entertainment; and Frank Stirling, Executive Director of Boeing Digital Cinema, were presented with a pair of those mysterious aqua gift boxes known as Sponsor Awards, the theatrical trailer for the 75th Academy Awards, featuring Marilyn Monroe, was "premiered"--that word in quotations since the spot had aired on Entertainment Tonight and the like the week before.
This being a fairly low profile event on the convention scale (read: no glitz or glamour), the dinner was understandably though nonetheless stunningly unpopulated. I sat at a table near the 15 to 20 VIP tables near the main stage, and maybe all but two or three sat completely empty--allowing a number of people who were there free to claim the complimentary DLP logo portable hard drives that were left at every place setting. It wasn't long before security guards told people to back off and the unclaimed pen drives were collected by Paris staff, presumably to return the units to DLP.
The dinner menu:
A salad of greens, tomatoes and cheese with a vinaigrette dressing
Grilled chicken breast with asparagus, mashed potatoes and a mix of corn, carrots and cucumber
Lemon meringue with peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries
Walt Disney Pictures brought the first full day of action to a dramatic close with a special screening of the latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, Finding Nemo. Given Pixar's stellar, heretofore infallible track record--Toy Story; A Bug's Life; Toy Story 2; Monsters, Inc.--there was considerable anticipation for what appeared to be just a simple screening: a plain slide with the Nemo logo was projected onto a standard screen and Randy Newman's tunes from previous Pixar films played over the sound system as patrons quickly filled the seats of the Paris Théâtre des Arts.
But this is Disney, after all, and Disney in Vegas, for crying out loud, so what happened once the lights dimmed shouldn't have been as shocking as it was. The screen was lifted and curtains parted to reveal a live orchestra, which was promptly joined by a line of showgirls done up in stereotypically gaudy Sin City sequins and feathers. Then la pièce de résistance: Robert Goulet, crooning Toy Story's "You've Got a Friend in Me" with maximum lounge-ready slickness. Some would substitute that last word with "smarm," but the performance was damn near irresistible, especially with Goulet joining the showgirls for an exuberant kickline finale that culminated with the audience being doused with an explosion fish-shaped confetti. Moments like these were practically designed to be photographed--and so continued the frustration with the no-camera policy.
The glitz didn't end with the song number, however. While there was the usual rigamarole of speeches before the feature presentation--by Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, leading Pixar director John Lasseter and Nemo helmer Andrew Stanton--Disney maintained the Vegas flourishes by having a showgirl escort each speaker on and off the stage to to an orchestral interlude, much like an awards show. Not that the speeches weren't interesting on their own. Cook introduced a clip package that trumpeted the whopping $1.734 billion worldwide box office of the computer animation studio's first four releases. Jobs gave a thumbnail outline of Pixar's plan to have a film released every year. Lasseter, who confessed that his favorite movie snack is drinking root beer through a Red Vine, expressed his pride that all of the Pixar features are rated G. Stanton's remarks were the briefest, and he told the audience that the film was being shown in a work-in-progress format. However, unlike DreamWorks's screening of Shrek two years ago, which featured one key sequence still in storyboard format and scattered sequences in various states of progress, this cut of Nemo was, I'd say, about 95% finished, with only a handful of shots shown in wire frame animatic form, and these unfinished pieces were all in the final act.