The Cinetex Gamble Bows in Las Vegas

Times Staff Writer

Sheldon G. Adelson, the one-time Boston bagel baker who has amassed a personal fortune producing conventions and trade shows, stood in the harsh spotlight on the stage of the cavernous Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts here Saturday night and told the crowd that they were witnessing the launching of what will become the most important event in the film and television industries.

The event being launched is Cinetex, an ambitious multi-dimensional film conference-festival-market designed to give America its own Cannes Film Festival and to make Las Vegas "the TV and film capital of the world."

But if Saturday's opening night of Cinetex becomes a significant historical moment, not many TV and film people will be able to say, "I was there."

As of Sunday, only about 10% of an expected 10,000 industry people had registered, only 25 of 200 media people had checked in and the relative handful of film sellers and buyers attending the film market were spending more time talking and joking about disaster festivals than disaster movies.

One person dubbed Adelson's venture "Cinetex the Duck," a reference to the flop film "Howard the Duck," and another said Caesars' sports book had posted 3-2 odds against Cinetex '89 coming off.

"There is nothing here to buy," said Francisco Trespalacios, a buyer from Bogota, Colombia. "At the American Film Market (in Los Angeles), I buy many things. I buy nothing here."

Adelson, whose Interface Group produces the immensely successful Comdex computer convention in Las Vegas each November, discounted such doomsaying during an interview in his suite at Caesars Palace, proclaiming that Cinetex "is off to a flying start."

"There is a saying, 'From little acorns big oaks grow.' This is a bunch of acorns. We have more than a foot in the door, we have our body in the door."

The stakes for Adelson in his Cinetex gamble are high. He is spending "at least $5 million" this year, he said, and doesn't expect to be in profits for perhaps five years.

"But so what?," he said. "It takes three to five years to get any show going. I'll have it forever."

Adelson, whose own staff describes his cocksureness on all subjects as both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, is bankrolling an event that is trying to become the crown jewel of international film and TV festivals with almost no support from the film and TV industries.

Two years ago, he rode into Hollywood like a white knight, agreeing to sponsor the film festival that the American Film Institute was taking over from the financially troubled Los Angeles International Film Exposition. The original commitment was for two years and $2 million, but the sponsorship is now ongoing.

Adelson acknowledged that the AFI commitment was his way of telling Hollywood that he wanted to "be a player" in that business.

"It's just like my moving to Las Vegas," said Adelson, who is in escrow with his purchase of the Sands Hotel here. "I had to join the local synagogue, contribute to this and that. If you're going to be in the business, you have to support it."

When Adelson announced Cinetex little more than a year ago, he said it would be an umbrella event that would include everything that the Cannes Film Festival has--a competitive film series, a film market for international shopping, glitzy tributes--plus film seminars and exhibits of concession-stand products and projection-room equipment. And it would be the only event in the world that combines both TV and film industries.

To pull it off, he needed the cooperation of virtually everyone in both businesses, and in early announcements about Cinetex, he included everyone in. Some didn't want to be in, and when their negative RSVPs came back, mostly as published stories in the Hollywood trade papers, Adelson was left looking like a guy who had on his tennis shorts and shoes but couldn't get up a game.

"There is no reason why (theater operators) would want to go to Cinetex," said John Krier, of Exhibitor Relations Co. "The major studios aren't there. There is no new product to look at. To get exhibitors, you have to have a smorgasbord of things to do."

Part of Cinetex's failure, said one person involved in it, is Adelson's own style.

"He exaggerates and he's brash, that's just who he is. He makes people mad. He is just very offensive to people in Hollywood."

Many people believe that before Cinetex has a chance to succeed, it needs a viable film market and the enthusiastic cooperation of film makers and major studios. Those are the financial underpinnings of a successful festival. Neither one is in evidence this year. Adelson said the major studios will come around, that they're taking a wait-and-see attitude, but he is intent on creating his own film market.

His two biggest obstacles for a film market are the Los Angeles-based American Film Market and the Milan, Italy-based Mifed, which comes up next month. Adelson said Mifed is going to help Cinetex by putting itself out of business.

"Not even Italians want to go to Milan," Adelson said. "Rooms there go for $400 a night, the phones are a problem, the organization is impossible. Here, hotels cost $100 a night, or less, industry people can get over from L.A. in 45 minutes. People on the East Coast can come in, do a day's work and go home. Everything works here."

Some insiders believe that Adelson's biggest miscalculation with Cinetex was his dogged refusal to hire knowledgeable film people to run the entire event. The one area where he did that--the AFI is handling the film events and the conferences--has proven to be Cinetex's only attraction.

"We were given a budget and they pretty much left us alone to put it together the way we thought was best," said Alan Jacobs, who put the business conferences together and designed the festival program. "It is a clean deal, and it's very good for the American Film Institute." Jacobs said the AFI has no financial stake in the outcome of Cinetex, but he said it is obviously anxious for Adelson and the event to succeed.

Jacobs was able to bring in several feature films for American premieres at Cinetex, the most noteworthy being "BAT 21" and "Full Moon in Blue Water," both starring Gene Hackman, and Orion Pictures' "Without a Clue," which stars Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. There are also a half-dozen tributes, with the tributees expected to attend.

Adelson said the tributes have all been sold out (actually, 2,500 tickets to each event were given away at the Aladdin theater's box office) and said that although he didn't like the first film in the series, it has provided the glamour he wanted to attract local attention.

"I thought ('Walking After Midnight') was a little flaky," he said. "But I don't have to be a film critic. There were a lot of people there. They had a good time."

"Walking After Midnight" is a highly stylized quasi-documentary about afterlife and reincarnation, with such stars as Martin Sheen, Dennis Weaver, Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr discussing their near-death and other experiences. The program hinted that some of the stars might show up.

Management at the Aladdin was ready. They had a roped-off red carpet running about 200 yards from the entrance of the hotel through the casino to the entrance of the theater and a lot of people loosened their grips on the slot machines long enough to watch the parade go by. But the only star who showed up was Zelda Rubinstein, who is best known as the pint-sized ghostbuster in "Poltergeist."

Jacobs said he would have preferred to have opened with Tri-Star Pictures' "Bat 21," but its star Gene Hackman is on a film location and couldn't come in until later in the week.

Despite the sparse attendance of Cinetex 1, Adelson said he is certain the concept will work, that the studios and everyone else will eventually get behind it.

And how is he going to make it happen?

"By appealing to the economic self-interest of the participants," he said. "This thing makes too much sense not to work."

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