MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

ShoWest & the Ghost of Cinema Future

Judging from all the projections of doom and gloom that accompanied each new weekend’s box-office reports last summer and fall, you’d think organizers of ShoWest would have staged the annual gathering of theater owners in a funeral parlor, and not within the faux-sunny confines of Paris Las Vegas. Apparently, with business up in the first-quarter of 2006, the chain-dragging Ghost of Cinema Future has decided to vacation in Florida this week.
Not that anything’s changed, really. None of boogey-men that journalists claimed were responsible for last year’s “slump” — miniscule DVD-release windows, cross-platform distribution of content, intense competition for consumer eyeballs, a mass aversion to in-theater advertising viewers who refuse to turn off their cellphones – have been eliminated as obstacles to growth. They’re lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to pounce on beleaguered exhibitors.
At the Q&A session held Tuesday after their state-of-the-industry addresses to an assembly of theater owners – most of whom probably were there to get a sneak peek at “Mission Impossible 3” — NATO president John Fithian took issue with how the slump was reported.
“We had a terrific fourth-quarter, but no one wrote about that,” he asserted. “Instead, dozens of stories were written about this tiny independent movie (Bubble) that had started a ‘revolution’ in release patterns. It made $145,000 and disappeared … but, again, nothing.
“It’s all about the stories – the movies, themselves – and, from what I’ve seen, the line-up for the next two years is excellent.”
Typically, hope springs eternal at ShoWest, where the cream of the crop is put on display in special screenings, product reels and endless displays of one-sheets. It was here, for example, that exhibitors first saw “Shrek,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Crash,” and select scenes from “Spider-Man II,” “Episode III”and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Even such train wrecks as “Stealth.”
Monday night, exhibitors were able to sample such indie hopefuls as “Kinky Boots,” “On a Clear Day,” “Friends With Money,” “Confetti,” “Hard Candy” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” The latter title documents Al Gore’s international crusade for global-warming awareness. It could have been a deadly dull experience, but the former VP came across – on screen, and in Q&A’s that followed each showing – as poised, persuasive and charismatic … everything he wasn’t in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Davis Guggenheim’s cameras followed Gore as he traveled around the world to present his “slide show,” which makes the best possible use charts, graphs, grim statistics and scenes of disintegrating ice shelves. Even so, “An Inconvenient Truth” is neither overtly partisan nor without humor.
Gore’s announced presence clearly elevated the documentary from easy-to-ignore to must-see status. Like a Washington lobbyist, the Bill Clinton’s second-in-command presented exhibitors with a list of altruistic reasons for booking the film. It wasn’t until he mentioned that an army of volunteers would participate in an extensive grass-roots marketing campaign that the theater owners started sensing the potential for it as a sleeper hit on the order of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “March of the Penguins.”
“How many of you saw the ‘Penguins’ movie during the first week of its release?” Gore asked, knowing full well how the audience would respond. “Now, how many of you were encouraged to see it by a friend, relative or by a newspaper or magazine article? Almost everyone …
“We’d like to see you make the same commitment to our picture … play this card! There will be a groundswell of support for ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ as well.”
The other picture to attract a large crowd was Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money,” if only because of a star-studded cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Greg Germann, Scott Caan, Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener. Like the writer-director’s “Lovely & Amazing” and “Walking and Talking,” the hard-to-classify romance/drama/comedy might be described as a “thinking woman’s chick flick.” Whether Aniston can draw flies at the box-office remains open to question.
Tuesday morning’s opening ceremony didn’t reveal much beyond the same negative stats already distributed to the press last, in the MPAA’s pre-emptive press release. Organization chairman and CEO Dan Glickman, a former Secretary of Agriculture, announced plans for a generic promotional campaign on the order of “Pork … the Other White Meat,” “Beef … It’s What for Dinner” and “Got Milk?” He’s also supporting AFI head Jean Firstenberg in her drive to have Congress declare a week in March as “National Movie Week.” Money already has been set aside for a major survey to determine consumer attitudes about film-going, as well as more anti-piracy campaigning.
Knowing that none of these efforts will vastly improve the in-theater experience or raise attendance by more than a few degrees, Glickman also called on movie studios to produce better movies.
“The power of the story always has been and will continue to be the key to our success,” he said.
He probably was pleased by producer Paula Wagner and director J.J. Abrams’ choice of clips from “M:I-3.” In Tom Cruise will match wits with recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a diabolical villain. Even as ShoWest teasers go, the presentation was exciting and likely to boost enthusiasm for a May box-office renaissance.
Immediately afterward, Lionsgate Films presented its much smaller in stature, “Akeelah and the Bee.” It tells the uplifting story of a young girl from South-Central Los Angeles, and her efforts to make the National Spelling Bee. The latest addition to the ever-growing subgenre of spelling, chess and math dramas stars Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer.
Tuesday night, the exhibitors were invited to preview Disney/Pixar’s highly anticipated “Cars.” Other screenings include Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Paramount/DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge,” New Line’s “Take the Lead” and a product reel from Warner Bros.
More on those, later …

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon