The business attitude continued with the speeches by Valenti and Fithian, but with occasional and rather sickening instances of brownnosing to Valenti. Weintraub introduced the MPAA president as "one of the best speechmakers in the world," and Fithian began his speech by saying that the hardest part of every ShoWest is having to speak after Valenti. But as with his speech at last year's ShoWest--or any speech I've ever heard him give, for that matter--Valenti didn't fail to make my eyes roll more than once with his overripe prose style and/or crushing sanctimony, such as stating that the events of September 11 "fired our emotional capillaries" and rather boldly declaring that the "tumult by critics" over the ratings system has faded (since when?). To his credit, though, he did impart some information of value, such as the fact that the total theatre admissions in 2001 were the highest since 1959, proving that the video and DVD market has actually increased moviegoing as opposed to cutting into it.
In his speech, Fithian hit some of the same points as Valenti, but did so without the condescension and pretension. He reiterated the fact that admissions in 2001 did go up--while screen count went down; and, like Valenti, he praised exhibitors for their wide enforcement of the MPAA rating system. When pointing out that of the $200 million grossers of last year, none were rated R, and that only 3 of the $100 million grossers carried the restricted rating, he concluded that family films were the films that sold--a statement that was met with a round of approving applause.
Paramount Pictures president of distribution Wayne Lewellen closed out the opening ceremonies with handing out the top award for exhibitors, ShoWester of the Year, to Kurt C. Hall, President and CEO of the United Artists Theatre Circuit.
ShoWester of the Year:
Kurt C. Hall, President and CEO, United Artists Theatre Circuit
With all the talk of ratings and the greater commercial viability of family films in the opening ceremony speeches, how ironic that the film screened immediately afterward would be a very hard R-rated film: MGM's WWII film Windtalkers, which attracted quite a bit of buzz with a trailer and a combat scene clip at last year's convention. The reaction to the John Woo film, which stars Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach, on the way out of Le Théâtre des Arts appeared rather muted. However, if the generally admiring discussion of the film at the studio's ensuing luncheon in the Paris Ballroom was any indication, people were perhaps too moved and/or depressed to really muster up the energy to applaud at the end.
MGM certainly earned creativity points for this luncheon. It's one thing to aggressively push your slate through the décor--a huge 007 scrim was placed over the wall outside the ballroom, and inside hung many huge banners and posters touting various upcoming titles from the Lion--and quite another to offer a themed menu that quite literally sold their product through exhibitors' stomachs:
Special cocktail The 007: Stoli Ohranj with orange juice and a splash of 7-Up Starters The Aussie Salad: Mixed greens topped with shrimp off the "barbie," mango, papaya salsa--fit for a Crocodile Hunter Native American breads: In honor of Windtalkers Entrée A Guy Thing: Grilled New York strip served with steak fries and ketchup A Girl Thing: Filet of salmon with champagne buerre blanc accompanied by haricot verts Dessert The Barbershop: A shaving mug filled with coffee chocolate mousse and topped with fresh whipped cream
Instead of giving the guests quiet time for themselves to dine, MGM didn't waste a single moment and had Steve Irwin, the Australian "Crocodile Hunter" of the nature TV series and the forthcoming caper comedy The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, entertain patrons while they ate. Irwin trotted out a menagerie of various jungle creatures, starting with snakes and then climaxing with a large alligator. While showing off one of the snakes, the film's producer, Bruce Willis, made a surprise appearance.
Once he was done with all of his monkey business (ha ha), it was time for the Lion's big product reel. Quite a few of the titles peddled--such as Windtalkers; the '50s gang drama Deuces Wild; the Christina Ricci starrer Pumpkin; and Roman Coppola's CQ--were holdovers from last year's reel. The more noteworthy new clips:
Barbershop: Ice Cube toplines this ensemble comedy set in and around a Chicago barbershop. Sean Patrick Thomas and, in her film debut, Eve also star, but from the looks of the short trailer, it's Cedric the Entertainer and Anthony Anderson who will provide most of the amusement.
Bulletproof Monk: No actual footage from this buddy action romp, starring Chow Yun-Fat as a monk protecting an ancient scroll and Seann William Scott as his most unlikely partner, was ready, but the premise alone and the odd mix of talent made an impression on the audience.
The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course: That the trailer showed very little actual footage from the film--let alone made any attempt to talk about the plot--and instead focused on Irwin doing his schtick with Leo the Lion isn't exactly a promising sign. Then again, any film tailored as a star vehicle for a nature TV show host wouldn't exactly set off my "quality entertainment" alarm. I'm not so sure I'm quite ready to buy Irwin as the star of an action comedy, which, given all the explosions on display in the trailer, this film appears to be.
Dark Blue: Curiously placed with the major MGM releases was this gritty from the studio's specialty division, United Artists, where Kurt Russell stars as a Los Angeles police detective in the days leading up to the Rodney King verdict and ensuing riots. If for nothing else, the film could be interesting just to see director Ron Shelton tackle something non-sports-related for a change.
A Guy Thing: Groom-to-be Jason Lee wakes up from a wild bachelor party in bed with a woman (Julia Stiles) who turns out to be his fiancée's (Selma Blair) cousin. Looks like formulaic fluff, but here's hoping the gifted (and too-often undervalued) leads can turn it into something worthwhile.
Getting token mentions were a few projects currently in development: Out of Time, the project that finally pushes Denzel Washington into the $20-million-a-picture club; Family Jewels, the first on-screen teaming of Kirk and Michael Douglas; Jeepers Creepers 2: Bat Out of Hell, which has succeeded in making the title even more laughable; and another sequel to a sleeper success from last year, Legally Blonde 2.
While all of the touted pictures from MGM's specialty division, United Artists, are already in the can, most of the titles, such as Mike Leigh's All or Nothing and Sundance faves Igby Goes Down and Personal Velocity, received more fleeting mentions than the MGM in-development projects. The one exception that did have a full trailer shown was the Irish drama Evelyn, but that's undoubtedly because it stars Pierce Brosnan--allowing for a nice tie-in to the reel-ending push for the then-still-untitled 20th James Bond adventure (which has since been given the horrid title of Die Another Day). Going conspicuously unmentioned in the entire reel was a project trumpeted as being in production at last year's ShoWest and is currently rolling out in overseas theatres: Killing Me Softly, an erotic thriller starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes and directed by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige.
It's good to be different, but not too different.
Last year, the big buzzed-about trade show item was the Popcorn Fork, a plastic instrument with which you can eat popcorn without having to deal with butter fingers; the talk even led to a little blurb in Entertainment Weekly. Yet the people behind the Popcorn Fork and the item itself were nowhere to be found this year; also noticeably absent was the hot dog alternative known as the BurgerPipe. I guess it just goes to show that novelty is fun but doesn't exactly sell--and that when attempting innovation, baby steps are the way to go; case in point: last year, the company behind Icee introduced stuffed pretzels, and this year the tasty items were back for an equally popular return engagement.
A tale of two soft drinks:
The Coca-Cola and Pepsi displays on the trade show floor
If you give it away, they will come--especially if it can be eaten. But make sure it's relevant.
Not surprisingly, the booths with freebies--particularly food items--were the most popular destinations at the trade show. Coca-Cola and Pepsi once again did battle with large, shiny displays and unlimited free beverages (though Pepsi had one leg up in that they gave away a reusable drink container); Eisenberg hot dogs attracted long lines and return visits; the Ben & Jerry's booth routinely ran out of their famous ice cream; and with the Jelly Belly company inexplicably gone this year (please, oh please, come back!), the Mike & Ike company was the big winner in the candy department as greedy trade show guests grabbed box after box of their chewy candies. But edibles didn't seem to work for the companies peddling, say, reupholstery services or the latest in ticketing machines, for those that had bowls of sweets ready for the taking found few takers. What appared to work better for non-food companies were basic non-food items: keychains (from the plain to ones featuring compasses and thermometers), pens, and buttons.
As will gimmicks.
The award for "most clever use of a booth," in my opinion, goes to DigiFlicks, a company that was showing off their digital movie distribution system and projection kiosks. Instead of running loop reels of trailers and various other clips, however, the company used their screen as a venue for digitally-shot shorts. So in addition to demonstrating their product, the company offered some refreshingly unique content to the showroom floor.
A grand archway leads to a photo-op with a bikini-clad model
But, of course, leave it to the big studios to offer attention-grabbing glitz. Universal had a two-booth set up that displayed pictures from and trailers for their upcoming releases, including those UIP favorites, The Scorpion King and About a Boy; the E.T. reissue; The Bourne Identity; the new film version of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon; and the girl surfer flick Blue Crush, which received attention through the showcase "display": a photo op with bikini-clad women and surfboards.
The K-19 submarine simulator and accompanying warning sign,
which didn't warn patrons about actors yelling in bad Russian accents.
The other studio that held real estate on the trade show floor, Paramount, tried outdo their big Tomb Raider green-screen video experience of last year with what appeared to be a motion simulator for their Russian submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker. But it actually was something more elaborate and, alas, certainly less thrilling than a simple motion simulator would have been. People were let in four at a time to a cramped gimbal that was all done up like a submarine--complete with actors sporting Russian military duds and matching (bad) accents. The actors instructed guests--or, should I say, barked orders at them--on what they were to do at certain cues, such as hitting buttons or ducking and covering. At various junctures the gimbal would shake and steam and sparks would rise from control panels and whatnot. When I was having the "experience," I and the three other guys I was with couldn't help but look and each other and laugh during the five minutes of shaking and, above all else, heavily accented yelling. Once out of there, one was given a souvenir photo taken during the little show and could get a souvenir K-19 dogtag, which was personalized on an actual machine from WWII.
A word of advice to the Paramount exhibitor relations people who manned that studio's exhibit (and let me further emphasize that these were exhibitor relations employees, not representatives from the studio's publicity department)--just because a press member does not hold one of those vaunted ShoWest passports is not an excuse to be rude to him or her when he or she has questions about your display. After all, your less than courteous attitude could reflect badly on your company should said media member decide to point out your rudeness in an article that will be read by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Such as this one. I won't sink to their level and name names, but let's just say that the one male studio rep who lorded over the goody bag boxes should've thought twice before being so plastic, brusque, and dismissive. *cough*BillSaugez*cough*
"Star Wars producer Rick McCallum talks about the digital filmmaking process," read the official program for the 30-minute March 6 pre- and post-dinner presentation at ShoWest, the annual Las Vegas-set convention for the National Association of Theatre Owners. McCallum’s speech indeed covered that topic, but any discussion of it was squarely in relation to Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones--culminating in the unveiling of some never-before-seen footage from the film as well as its newest trailer.
McCallum admitted that the program description was a deliberately misleading one given to the ShoWest organizers by Lucasfilm Ltd., who wanted to keep their centerpiece a surprise. That the footage would be screening was not at all a surprise--in fact, word of it was fairly widespread and, accordingly, widely anticipated-but the footage itself did. Anyone whose expectations for any future Star Wars installments were diminished after seeing Episode I--The Phantom Menace immediately had their hopes for this next prequel elevated.
The approximately eight-minute reel was a wordless and, at times, random assemblage of scenes from the film set entirely to John Williams’ score. McCallum described the footage as a "technical reel," and as such the "official" purpose of this presentation was to show off the pristine quality of the images captured by Sony’s high-definition digital video cameras, on which Episode II was entirely shot. On this tech level, the reel did not disappoint; featuring footage shot in different time and place settings, it showcased how these digital cameras could capture remarkable clarity, vibrancy, and detail in scenes of varying light, speed, and motion. Later in his presentation, McCallum further demonstrated the digital image’s astounding quality by presenting a blow-up test where various Clones shots (including one really va-va-va-voom shot of Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala wearing a figure-hugging corset-like top) are magnified up to 300%; while some distortion was apparent in some of the images by the 150-200% mark, the clarity still astonished. It must be said, however, that all the videos shown during the presentation were digitally projected via Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema technology, so it remains to be seen just how good the image will look when transferred to actual film for conventional 35mm projectors. With the opinion of the image quality met with virtually unanimous enthusiasm, post-screening discussion largely centered on making sense of what exactly the reel reveals about the film.
Some quiet FX images of spacecraft traveling toward a planet soon make way for the first fairly coherent stretch of the reel: a boisterous scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) breaks through a high-rise glass window and grabs onto a flying droid of some sort, which then flies around a hectic, otherworldly urban skyline. Someone shoots down the droid, and Obi-Wan takes a Fifth Element-like plunge into skyway traffic, only to be picked up in a ship piloted by Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). The scene then shifts to the ground, where a glimpse of Anakin running in a street is followed by the sight of he and Obi-Wan casually walking into one of the series’ classically alien-populated bars; at the bar, a mysterious figure pulls out a gun.
The scene then quickly shifts to the jarring sight of Obi-Wan talking to an alien creature in an eating establishment that could very well pass for a 1950s diner. The food theme continues with a shot of R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) apparently in line and assembling a tray of food at a cafeteria. The first glimpse of Queen Amidala, still modeling an array of ornate costumes, comes with a shift of setting to Tatooine, where she and Anakin apparently meet up with R2 and a now-completed C3PO (Anthony Daniels). The randomness of this stretch of images continues: a winged creature emerges from water and flies past a building that’s on the water; a tall, long-necked alien walks and talks with Obi-Wan; children with headsets sit at computers.
A master shot of a seaside residence begins the romance portion of the reel. Anakin and Amidala kiss on the terrace, much to Yoda’s apparent dismay. The pair walks along a multipillared structure, with Anakin carrying what appears to be luggage (are the two on holiday of some sort)? This passage ends with a tight and rather provocative shot of Anakin, sweat glistening on his face, appearing to be lying in a bed.
It's back to action when a rain-drenched battle between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) atop the aforementioned floating building is joined in progress. Shots fired by Jango are deflected by Obi-Wan’s light saber. Obi-Wan kicks Jango off of the building only to have the tables quickly reversed, for Jango caught him with his grappling hook; Obi-Wan falls along with him, and soon Jango flies away and literally leaves him dangling. Meanwhile, a very young Boba Fett fires up the ignition on the Slave-1 ship.
More random quiet--Anakin cruises the Tatooine desert, meets up with some Jawas; Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Yoda have a Jedi-to-Jedi confab--is followed by another elaborate action scene. A bridge retracts from underneath the feet of Anakin and Amidala, and she falls onto the conveyor belt of what appears to be one big factory assembly line. Anakin jumps onto the belt and does his light saber magic on the robots manning the line as well as some malevolent flying creatures. Amidala crafitly dodges a rather large press on the assembly line, only to then get into a struggle with one of the flying creatures, who overpowers her and tosses her into a silo of some sort. More action images-Anakin in a big light saber duel with an unknown figure; Yoda employing some Emperor-like electrical powers-are then capped off with the reel’s final shot, one of a planet or moon as shot from outer space.
Lest anyone in the audience thought that Attack of the Clones is just a love story "about Jar Jar Binks getting funky with the Ewoks" (as McCallum joked), a number of the eye-popping sights were put into their proper plot perspective by Episode II's latest trailer. McCallum then closed out his presentation with bold statements. "We [Lucasfilm] didn’t want to push the envelope; we wanted to lick it." "All of you [exhibitors] lucky enough to get [Attack of the Clones] are going to make a shitload of money." After seeing the footage, it’s hard to argue with either declaration. The revolutionary manner in which the film (that is, if it can even be called that, given that not a single frame of celluloid was printed) was produced certainly would qualify as "envelope licking"; and if these brief, tantalizing tastes are any indication, even a commodity as pre-sold as Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones could very well exceed the already-lofty box office expectations.