- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

LAS VEGAS — Movie theater operators who have felt the pinch of a lingering decline in business have a ready solution to turn things around: Studios need to make better films.

Last year’s 8 percent downturn in movie attendance was a wake-up call that Hollywood cannot rely on tired film formulas amid consumer-technology leaps that offer people more choices on how to spend their money and free time, say guests here at ShoWest, an annual convention of theater owners.

“You take movies like ‘The Island’ and ‘Stealth,’ ” said theater owner Ken Hill, referring to two of last summer’s high-profile action flops. “People stayed away in record numbers.

“I told my wife somebody could have driven a car into my theater and not hit anybody,” says Mr. Hill, whose family runs Trinity Theatre in Weaverville, Calif. “When you have a well-crafted, entertaining film that people will want to see, they will come out in record numbers.”

Slumping attendance has come with dire predictions that filmgoers are abandoning cinemas in favor of watching DVDs on big-screen home-theater systems or other entertainment options such as video games and portable movie devices.

Yet the industry struck a positive attitude during opening speeches Tuesday at ShoWest, which studios use as a pep rally to fire up theater managers for the busy summer movie season.

The Motion Picture Association of America, the key trade outfit for top studios, is researching moviegoers’ habits and attitudes to determine what steps should be taken to keep them coming to theaters, says Dan Glickman, the group’s chief.

Ideas under consideration include offering electronic movie tickets over cell phones, incentives for repeat customers and general advertising to promote the cinema business, Mr. Glickman says.

“I’m someone who believes the only way to see a movie is in a big theater, on a big screen, with a big bag of popcorn,” he told theater owners.

John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners, said his group is looking into ways to cut down on theater hassles. Among them are making preshow advertising less of an irritant to viewers and curbing rude behavior among audiences, which could include blocking cellular signals to keep people from talking on their phones during movies, he said.

ShoWest organizers said the best way to promote theater business is the movies themselves, and the convention offered highlights of potential blockbusters in the making, including two scenes from Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible III,” due out May 5.

Studios also were presenting advance screenings of two of summer’s key animated flicks, the talking-auto comedy “Cars,” from Disney-Pixar (“Finding Nemo,” the “Toy Story” movies) and the animal adventure “Over the Hedge,” from DreamWorks (the “Shrek” films, “Madagascar”).

Stars and filmmakers of big 2006 movies were honored last night at the convention’s ceremony, including Natalie Portman of the action tale “V for Vendetta,” which opens today; Hugh Jackman of “X-Men 3”; “Cars” director John Lasseter; Dakota Fanning of “Charlotte’s Web”; Vince Vaughn of last summer’s surprise comedy smash “Wedding Crashers,” who co-stars with Jennifer Aniston in the romance “The Break-Up”; and Brandon Routh, an unknown who snagged the title role in “Superman Returns.”

Joe Masher — general manager of Bow Tie Cinemas, which runs two theaters in Connecticut and Colorado and is opening three more on the East Coast — says the lineup this summer looks as though it could make up for a generally lackluster movie slate in 2006.

“Once the product improves, moviegoing will come back,” Mr. Masher says. “Moviegoing’s a habit. People want to get out of their house and go to the theater. There’s nothing like sharing the experience of watching the film on the big screen.”

Theaters did solid business the last few months of 2005 and into the opening weeks of 2006, but revenues have trailed off again during the past month, with attendance flat so far this year compared to last.

Hollywood went through a similar downturn in the mid-1980s, with critics predicting videotape rentals would kill off cinemas. Yet movie attendance climbed through the 1990s, reaching its highest levels since the late 1950s.

The number of tickets sold slipped to 1.4 billion last year, the lowest since the late 1990s but still among the best sales Hollywood has had in the last four decades.

“I’ll tell you what I really think about the box-office decline,” says Trinity Theatre owner Mr. Hill. “I’m so alarmed by it that I am building a brand-new 11-screen cinema.

“Obviously, I believe in the future of the product,” says Mr. Hill, whose new multiplex will be in Anderson, Calif., about 10 miles from his Weaverville theater. “As everyone in the business will tell you, the business is cyclical. It has its ups and downs, and I don’t think it’s as bad as it was in the ‘80s. You can’t complain that it’s down now, because business is still good.”

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