Watered-Down Convention in Coca-Cola Land

The only good thing to be said about the National Assn. of Theater Owners convention that concluded Saturday in Atlanta, the home of the Coca-Cola Co., is that conventioneers could find a free Coke whenever they wanted one.

They could also get a tour of the Coca-Cola bottling plant, or look out their windows in the Marriott Marquis and see the Coca-Cola sign on top of the Coca-Cola building a few blocks away.

They could store information about films being made by Coca-Cola's two studios--Tri-Star and Columbia--in their free Coca-Cola bags. They could see comedian and Coca-Cola bottler Bill Cosby holding a Coca-Cola bottle in his hand in a trailer for Coke-Columbia's upcoming "Leonard Part 6."

And they could cheer the stars and film makers--nearly all of whom have current involvements with Coke's Tri-Star--being honored by the theater owners at a closing-night banquet hosted by Coke.

The next sound you hear will be a burp.

"We probably wouldn't be in Atlanta if it wasn't for Coke," said National Assn. of Theater Owners President Malcolm Green, who acknowledged that he would have preferred another site for the exhibitors' 63rd convention. "Atlanta is a great city, but not for a convention."

There was some question whether Coke's generosity helped or hurt the poorly attended event. Coke, Tri-Star and Columbia hosted three of the convention's four sponsored luncheons or dinners. (A consulting firm picked up the tab for the fourth.)

On the other hand, by holding the convention on Coke's home court, the exhibitors may have given the other studios a convenient reason not to participate.

"All I can say is there is no question there is less participation by the studios," Green said. "I don't think there is a conspiracy. They all gave good reasons for not coming."

By most accounts, this year's convention was a disaster:

--There were fewer than 1,000 exhibitors in attendance, compared to the nearly 3,000 who attend ShoWest, the western regional convention held each February in Las Vegas.

--MGM/UA was the only other major studio represented and its presence was limited to an unannounced hospitality suite.

--Five of the eight studio distribution chiefs originally scheduled for a panel program failed to show up, and at a session where legislative issues affecting exhibitors were discussed, fewer than 75 exhibitors sat in.

--On the trade show floor, where concessions and theater equipment were displayed, idle vendors complained about the lack of traffic. "We've learned our lesson; this is just not a very big show," said James Groves, whose Iowa-based Lil' Drug Store manufactures counter dispensers for such packaged items as aspirin, Alka-Seltzer and condoms. "We've learned that the (convention) to be at is ShoWest."

Most people attribute the decline of the national convention to the rise of ShoWest. Years ago, the studios invested heavily in the national convention, hosting luncheons and dinners where they showed slickly produced product reels in an effort to convince exhibitors to book their films.

With the success of ShoWest, which now attracts exhibitors from all parts of the country to Las Vegas, the studios concentrate their sales efforts there.

Malcolm Green sees ShoWest as more of a party than a convention.

"I don't want to pick a fight with (the ShoWest organizers), but if you look at the 3,000 people they boast of having, you'd find a large proportion of them having zero to do with the industry," Green said. "People go there for an inexpensive vacation, and they have a wonderful time, but they don't do much business."

Nevertheless, it is clear that ShoWest has pushed the national convention aside as a must event for both distributors and exhibitors. To help save it, the national group has started bringing its convention into ShoWest territory. It was held last year in Century City. It will be held next year in Palm Desert.

"It would be a shame to lose (the national convention)," said Ted Manos, a 75-year-old exhibitor with several theaters in Pennsylvania. "We have a lot of business issues to deal with here. But I don't see how it can go on much longer like this."

Exhibitors who attended Columbia Pictures' preview of "Vice Versa" in Atlanta on Friday must have had strong feelings of deja vu . The movie is virtually identical in plot to "Like Father, Like Son," a role-reversal comedy that is a current hit for Tri-Star.

In both films, a father and son undergo miraculous reversal. The father's brain ends up in the son's body, and, uh, vice versa. Dudley Moore is the surgeon-father of teen-age rocker Kirk Cameron in "Like Father, Like Son"; Judge Reinhold is the marketing executive-father of precocious pre-adolescent rocker Fred Savage in "Vice Versa."

"The films were in development simultaneously at both studios; it was a complete coincidence," said David Picker, the departing production president for Columbia Pictures. "We worked it out so Tri-Star would release 'Like Father, Like Son' first domestically, and we would release 'Vice Versa' first in foreign territories."

Picker, who will continue as a consultant and as a producer of films to be released by Columbia, said "Like Father, Like Son" was originally planned for summer release and "Vice Versa" at Christmas. But "Like Father" wasn't ready in time.

"The stars, the films, the resources. From the only major studio of the '80s for the '80s and way beyond. Tri-Star Pictures. Dedicated to one very simple goal--that great box office is born from great entertainment. And the best of times are right now. It is the new golden age. It is the golden age and the golden touch of Tri-Star."

You expect hyperbole from a promotional reel of upcoming movies, but from Tri-Star--the studio that USA Today's Mike Clark once suggested should change its name to One-Star to better reflect the quality of its product--that pitch carries marketing enthusiasm to new heights.

Among the films getting Tri-Star's golden touch next year are "Rambo III," "Iron Eagle II," "About Last Night II," "Annie II," and "Terminator II."

There's also "Forever Murray," a comedy about a guy who is immortal but can't get a date; "Life After Life," a comedy about a deceased husband whose love for his wife was so strong he comes back to life (but in the body of a baby), and "The Host," a horror film about a sinister beauty out to claim the soul of a teen-age girl.

"Red Heat," starring the theater owners' male star of the year Arnold Schwarzenegger, is on Tri-Star's schedule, along with "Spice of Life," starring female star of the year Diane Keaton. The studio will soon release Director of the Year Blake Edwards' "Sunset" and Producer of the Year Keith Barrish's "Ironweed."

The stars and film makers of the year were chosen by a special committee of the exhibitors association, based on their box-office appeal and other factors.

"Very often, it's availability," said Malcolm Green, the organization's president. "Let's be practical. We pick people we know will be here."

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