Times Staff Writer

At lavish sit-down dinners, early morning breakfasts and seemingly non-stop cocktail receptions, exhibitors from across the country are shopping for next year's potential Academy Award winners.

They paused Wednesday morning to take note of, and in some cases to capitalize on, this year's Oscar nominations. Shortly after their announcement in Los Angeles, a poster for "Peggy Sue Got Married" in Tri-Star's hospitality suite high atop Bally's MGM Hotel had a sign on it heralding the movie's three nominations.

And as the news that "Platoon" had won eight nominations filtered out, exhibitors who are carrying the movie now were predictably thrilled. "This is terrific news," said Seymour Berman, film buyer for the Washington-based Circle Theaters Chain. "Now we'll be able to carry this film until May."

Otherwise, however, the exhibitors' three days here will be spent looking at clips from literally hundreds of coming movies--everything from New World's "Creepshow II" to Disney's comedy "Good Morning Vietnam."

Writer-director Robert Townsend has come to Vegas to gamble--but not at a roulette wheel or a blackjack table. Townsend is here to help the Samuel Goldwyn Co. sell "Hollywood Shuffle," a comedy about a black actor's struggle to make it in Hollywood that was partially financed with the help of a half-dozen of Townsend's credit cards.

Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks have come on board Universal's private jet to promote "Dragnet," a $25-million comedy remake of the classic TV show. Though these two films are worlds apart in budget and style, both have their place at ShoWest '87, a western-states convention of some 3,000 theater operators and movie distributors who have convened annually in this gambling mecca for the past 13 years.

It all has the look and feel of an enormous Hollywood pep rally. Says Dick Cook, senior vice president of domestic distribution for Walt Disney Productions: "This is an opportunity for us to show the company flag. It gives us a chance to tell the exhibitors we have a lot of good product coming down the pike."

And they try to do it in style. This year Disney spent more than $200,000 on its lavish luncheon (theme: "Magic to Do"), which featured appearences by Bette Midler, Danny DeVito and a bawdy 10-minute stand-up routine from Robin Williams that had the audience roaring with laughter.

Williams, starring in the upcoming "Good Morning Vietnam," told the crowd of about 2,500, "Welcome to the new Disney, where Minnie has nipples and Dumbo's been to the Betty Ford Center."

While dining on a buffet that included everything from enchiladas to thousands of jumbo shrimp, exhibitors got to have their pictures taken with Goofy and Cinderella.

The pampering is equal parts thank you (for playing the studio's pictures in the past) and hard sell (for getting them to take on their new releases).

The difficulty here is that rarely does anyone get to see an entire film. Many of the movies on display are not even completed yet and some have not even been started. Universal Pictures, for example, offered a spirited product reel that included teasers for "Back to the Future II" and "Fletch II," neither of which has gone into production.

While the displays are extravagant and the entertainment is pure Hollywood, this convention is one of the few times when the movie business almost resembles any other business.

When they are not watching product reels or begging for another "Ghostbusters," the exhibitors attend countless seminars on everything from improving service to "showmanship at the point of sale." This year's hot topic has been the steadily growing intrusion of the studios into the theater business--a move that has some exhibitors edgy.

In the past year, companies such as Gulf+Western (which owns Paramount Pictures) and MCA Inc. (the parent of Universal) have purchased hundreds of theaters. Gulf+Western purchased Mann Theaters and MCA acquired a 50% interest in the Cineplex Odeon Corp.

At a heated question-and-answer session Tuesday morning, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, pointed out that all of the studios together own only about 7% of the 22,725 screens across the country.

Valenti argued that the purchasing of theater chains by the studios is actually a good-news trend for theater owners. "It's a sign of faith from people who are not dumb that the future is bright," Valenti said.

But that was little consolation to Nancy Noret Moore of San Marcos, Tex., who owns 35 screens in Texas and New Mexico and is worried that the studios may save the best pictures for their own theaters, ignoring smaller operators.

Valenti diplomatically dodged the issue by suggesting that the solution lies in marketing. "There are something like 32 1/2-million videocassettes out there and I dare say many of them are in San Marcos," he told Noret. "You've got to do something to beckon that theatergoer."

Inside the massive trade-fair part of this show there are countless booths designed to do just that. The Bose Corp. is touting a new sound system system it says will improve sound quality at the theater.

An intriguing company called Movietime introduced a satellite network that will broadcast previews, behind-the-scenes footage and local playing times and theater locations on television. The service will be beamed to three million homes in June.

"The studios have been very enthusiastic," says Alan Mruvka, the 29-year-old chairman of the company. "This is another chance for them to market their movies."

Technology and hype aside, theater owners are still hunting for one thing: blockbusters that will play for weeks and fill seats at the local movie house.

"A good movie plays good everywhere," says Charles Costolo, who owns five movie houses in West Virginia, ranging in size from 150 to 372 seats. "I'm looking for good action pictures. If I can just get another 'Rambo' for Thanksgiving, that can carry me right through the New Year."

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