LAS VEGAS, March 14 â€” As one of this summerâ€™s most anticipated and heavily marketed movies, â€œSpider-Man 3,â€ the latest in the Sony Pictures blockbuster superhero series, will be hard to miss. But this week at ShoWest, the movie industryâ€™s annual convention for thousands of theater owners, filling four days and two Las Vegas hotels, a giant poster in the convention area is pretty much all the promotion it is getting.
Three years ago, leading up to â€œSpider-Man 2,â€ Sonyâ€™s efforts did not cut such a low profile. Conventiongoers were treated to a special preview of the main action sequence, as spider-costumed acrobats descended on black cables from the ceiling of Le Theatre Des Arts at the Paris Hotel here.
The other major Hollywood studios are following similar no-frills scripts at what is the principal industry showcase for mainstream movies. A frayed relationship between the major studios and exhibitors, cost-cutting across the board and consolidation among the national theater chains has turned a promotional event for big-budget movies into one that is not promoting very many big-budget movies.
â€œItâ€™s expensive,â€ explained Richard Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Last year Disney screened Pixarâ€™s â€œCarsâ€ for the convention, but on Tuesday it showed only a trailer of â€œPirates of the Caribbean: At Worldâ€™s End,â€ and 12 minutes of the next Pixar animated movie, â€œRatatouille.â€ â€œYou still have to sell the movie,â€ he added. â€œYou just do it in a different way.â€
Mass events at places like ShoWest have been replaced by one-on-one contact with the exhibitors responsible for the lionâ€™s share of American cineplexes, like AMC, Regal and Cinemark. Studio executives say they can cover most of the country with a few phone calls or a visit to an exhibitorâ€™s headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., or Knoxville, Tenn.
Mr. Cook said Disney executives would spend much of ShoWest in private meetings with the large exhibitors, promoting coming movies. And just a couple of weeks ago, Paramount played host on its Hollywood lot to executives from a small, regional chain, Pacific Theaters, showing them scenes from two high-end movies still in production, â€œDrillbit Taylorâ€ and â€œSweeney Todd.â€
As recently as three years ago, exhibitors were treated to the full-on glamour treatment by Paramount, with a cavalcade of stars from the studioâ€™s lineup of films, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep and a dozen others, attending a lavish dinner for the ShoWest delegates. The cost for the evening, according to a Paramount executive, was close to $6 million. It did not, however, result in greater theatrical bookings for Paramount films.
â€œIn the old days, when we had a huge dais of stars, it was pretty sexy and cool,â€ said Rory Bruer, the domestic distribution president for Sony. â€œNow ShoWest has evolved in a far more practical, business manner. Itâ€™s become about the whole operational aspect of theaters.â€
This means presentations about new projectors and sound systems, and debates over advertising costs, the rating systems and the relative merits of popcorn makers. Delegates are also invited to sample panels, like one about the hearing-impaired and another on the dangers of trans fat at the concession stand.
â€œNuts and bolts, thatâ€™s why we come â€” for the seminars, the trade show,â€ said Brian MacLeod, the vice president for operations at Empire Theaters, a 54-theater chain based in Canada. â€œItâ€™s always nice to see the stars, but that doesnâ€™t help me with my job directly.â€
But the shift at ShoWest is also a sign of continuing tension between the Hollywood studios and the exhibition chains, a demotion of sorts, as festivals in places like Toronto and even Venice have absorbed more attention from the news media.
Though the industryâ€™s domestic box-office gross revenues rose 5.5 percent in 2006 after a disastrous drop in 2005 (and is off to a good start this year, thanks to movies like â€œ300â€ and â€œGhost Riderâ€), the major studios still complain that theaters are not doing enough to lure customers off their couches and into the multiplex. Among the studiosâ€™ desires: hiring more ushers to cut down on cellphone use and other noise.
Meanwhile, exhibitors resent Hollywoodâ€™s pressure to shorten the interval between the theatrical first run of a film and its DVD release. That interval, known as a window, shrank an average of 10 days last year, to three months and 25 days, according to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. Exhibitors are concerned that people wonâ€™t make the trek to the theater if they know the movie will soon show up at the local video store.
â€œWhat message are we sending to the patron with these short windows?â€ he said in his speech on Tuesday to exhibitors, betraying annoyance. â€œGet the DVD really fast,â€ just because the movie stank? he asked, using a more vulgar term. He added, â€œThat part wasnâ€™t in the script.â€
Asked later about tension with the studios, he said, â€œI wouldnâ€™t say itâ€™s completely dissipated, but itâ€™s certainly improved.â€
Exhibitors have also not rushed to install digital projectors in their theaters, an expensive process whose cost they are sharing with Hollywood studios. After years of discussions with manufacturers, there are now 2,300 screens across the country with digital projectors, still a small fraction of the nationâ€™s 37,000. The higher-quality equipment is not expected to be widely installed until 2009, when a few high-profile movies in 3D requiring digital projection (like James Cameronâ€™s â€œAvatarâ€) are scheduled for released.
Screenings and stars have not been completely banished from ShoWest; the actor Shia LaBeouf came with the director Michael Bay and 20 minutes of their movie, â€œTransformers.â€ But the dream machine has lost some of its dazzle. The studios are instead using ShoWest to promote some of their lesser-known releases rather than big-budget spectacles.
MGM (now a modest-size distributor) showed â€œMr. Brooks,â€ a psychological thriller with Kevin Costner and Demi Moore (though it excluded reporters from the screening). And Paramount screened a small movie, â€œDisturbia,â€ also starring Mr. LaBeouf.
â€œWe have a bunch of movies with a lot of profile,â€ said Rob Moore, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Paramount, explaining the decision not to show the studioâ€™s most anticipated films. â€œI donâ€™t need to show â€˜Shrek 3â€™ or â€˜Blades of Gloryâ€™ to anybody.â€