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Josh Bell checks out the business of movies at this year’s CinemaCon

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Tony Hsieh gave theater owners the lowdown on his philosophy at CinemaCon at Caesars Palace last week.
Photo: Charley Gallay

Every year at Caesars Palace, CinemaCon, the trade convention of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), takes the magic of moviegoing and turns it into a series of dry corporate presentations, focused on facts and figures and technical specifications. The surest way to kill your sense of wonder about the movies is to spend an hour sitting through one of the major studios’ pitches to NATO members, complete with celebrity guests who look like they’d rather be anywhere else, and preview footage that makes every movie look like the same pandering feel-good fare.

Even at a Rotten Tomatoes-sponsored panel of film critics (including Leonard Maltin and USA Today’s Claudia Puig), I heard mostly platitudes. “We are not trying to keep people from going to the movies,” the review-aggregation website’s Matt Atchity said, defensively, at the start of the discussion. On the final day of the convention, I went to see Vegas kingpin Tony Hsieh give what was billed as a presentation on customer service, but turned out to be the standard PowerPoint lecture he must give at every one of his speaking engagements. His only mention of movies was a reference to living in a loft above a movie theater before he started working at Zappos.

Down the hall from the seminars and fancy studio presentations, CinemaCon’s trade-show floor is full of the latest in sound and visual technology, plus every kind of junk food you could possibly find at a concession stand. Most of them are going to end up in movie theaters even without promotion at CinemaCon, but it’s always exciting to find someone who actually relies on the event to kickstart his or her business. One of the first booths I saw at this year’s trade show was for Uncle John’s Burger Dog, a combination hamburger/hot dog created by Minnesota B-movie filmmaker Christopher R. Mihm. After featuring a fictional version of the snack in his movie The Giant Spider, Mihm decided to create it for real. “This all just kind of came together,” he said. “Maybe this will be our million-dollar idea.” At a convention full of corporate cynicism, there was at least one dreamer.

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