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Coming attractions _ the show at ShoWest

The signature moment of ShoWest 2003 didn't take place in a seminar or trade show, but where it should, in a movie theater.

Delegates to the annual National Association of Theater Owners convention settled in their seats, ready to see the next Disney-Pixar animated film destined to make a bundle, the underwater adventure Finding Nemo. The curtain didn't rise at show time.

Instead, the entire screen lifted, revealing ageless crooner Robert Goulet and a dozen showgirls breezing through a rendition of You've Got a Friend in Me from the first two Toy Story movies.

Very Vegas, baby.

On the final note, air cannons blasted a blizzard of multicolored paper fish over moviegoers' heads. The debris, and the message, were impossible to avoid.

Theater owners have a friend in Disney, indeed. Goulet's song selection was an intentional reminder of how much money exhibitors made from Toy Story and its sequel. Both films, like Finding Nemo, were produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Give us your screens again in 2003, the studios hinted, and we'll give you another box office windfall, maybe topping last year's record $9.2-billion ticket sales.

Universal Pictures told delegates the same thing about its Thanksgiving release, a live-action version of The Cat in the Hat, reminding them of the studio's previous Dr. Seuss success, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Columbia Pictures representatives couldn't speak without sneaking the word "Spider-man" into the mix. Any studio promoting a small, independent film complimented delegates for "discovering" My Big Fat Greek Wedding at ShoWest last year, with an unspoken addendum: Now do it for us, okay?

ShoWest is where studios pitch their wares to theater owners, the same way Nestle sells concession-stand candy and Dolby sells auditorium speakers. Movies matter most since ShoWest is a place for sneak previews and celebrity sightings, as studios make every new film seem like a blockbuster waiting to happen. Convincing theater owners to schedule a film on multiple screens can make the difference.

ShoWest strategy doesn't always work. Warner Bros. can't be happy about a world premiere screening of Dreamcatchers marked by numerous walkouts. Observing the people entrusted with showing a movie unable to sit through it isn't a good sign. Dreamcatchers, opening March 21 and probably closing soon after, is a sci-fi groaner based on Stephen King's laziest literary effort. Seated in the audience, director Lawrence Kasdan turned his head to notice every early exit.

Meanwhile, the Finding Nemo screening went through the roof. Moviegoers left that computer-animated gem with tears and dollar signs in their eyes. The movie is gorgeous to behold, utilizing every undersea and techno-creative wonder Pixar can imagine. Think Indiana Jones-style action starring fish (voiced by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres) for an idea of the fun in store beginning May 30.

Exhibitors also were encouraged by a world premiere screening of Anger Management (opening April 11) and its dynamic pairing of Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, leading to big opening weekend ticket sales no matter what critics think. The comedy involves a meek man (Sandler) wrongly sentenced to anger management therapy supervised by a maniac (Nicholson). It's funny enough to have box-office legs through the spring movie season.

None of the five independent films showcased at ShoWest created much buzz. However, Fox Searchlight had to be pleased with the ShoWest reception for In America, a wistful tale of modern Irish immigrants by director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father). In America teeters between art-house obscurity and crossover appeal like The Full Monty. The friends it made among theater owners at ShoWest could lead to wider exposure in megaplexes.

Almost ignored by ShoWest delegates was a screening of Eddie Griffin's comedy concert film, Dysfunktional Family. Griffin's relentless profanity and naked family skeletons made it an appropriate 11 p.m. offering. Studios realize that many ShoWest delegates are from Middle America and aren't comfortable with harsh material. Kasdan warned folks about the violence in Dreamcatchers and they took him up on his invitation to leave. With Dysfunktional Family, hardly anyone showed up.

Studios also made exhibitors aware of upcoming films with huge posters and booth displays for dozens of titles. Entertainment Tonight produced a reel of preview trailers running 24 hours a day on in-room television. The annual Schmooze-A-Rama luncheon featured 12 studios hawking new movies with intoxicating style, from free booze to bikini-clad models. Pepsi went the buffet route to trumpet its promotional tie-ins with Universal's 2 Fast 2 Furious, Hulk and The Cat in the Hat. Those soft-drink commercials amount to free advertising for theater owners.

The most impressive presentation was Universal's product reel, a compilation of extended trailers for this year's releases. These versions will likely never be seen anywhere but ShoWest, too long and plot-revealing for regular advertising. But they give exhibitors a feeling for what will draw crowds to theaters. You should have heard them cheering the car carnage of 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Bruce Almighty (May 25) is going to be a hit, with Jim Carrey reverting to Liar, Liar form as a man endowed with ultimate powers when God (Morgan Freeman) decides to retire. The preview is hilarious. I wish I could say the same for The Cat in the Hat, starring Mike Myers as the mischievous feline. The problem is that Dr. Seuss' book doesn't have the narrative arc of The Grinch, so the screenwriters add a lame subplot with Alec Baldwin hitting on Conrad and Sally's mother (Kelly Preston). Myers' cat makeup is good but the movie looks like a Thanksgiving turkey.

The best bet previewed in Las Vegas was, appropriately, a race horse. If the preview reel is any indication, Seabiscuit will be a major awards contender this year. The true story of a rescued horse that became a national hero during the Depression gave me goose bumps.

Jeff Bridges stars as the fallen tycoon who owns Seabiscuit, with Chris Cooper training and Tobey Maguire in the saddle. The period detail is exquisite, the performances look strong and the uplifting drama of redemption should touch millions of viewers beginning June 25.

Other films raised more questions than they answered. Was James Cameron so determined to make a sequel to Titanic that he risked his life on the expedition documentary, Ghost of the Abyss? Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger's nemesis in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a hot babe? It seems that scientists would have a different purpose for such a lifelike robot than blowing up things. With two Matrix sequels already in the can, why didn't Warner Bros. show any footage? Is the world clamoring for a live-action version of Peter Pan, slated for Christmas?

We'll see, and next year's ShoWest delegates will know again who their friends are.