Casey Davidson
March 22, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s only fitting that NATO/ShoWest, the annual convention of movie theater owners, is held in Las Vegas. After all, what better venue is there for Hollywood studios to display their showmanship? Where else would you expect 3,800 movie exhibitors representing 73 different countries to gather for indoor fireworks, animal shows, confetti bombs, celebrity-studded presentations, and — somewhere amid all the spectacle — a sneak peek at this year’s summer movies?

The 1996 convention certainly didn’t lack any of that Vegas flair. Even though several major studios opted not to show trailers, including Sony (which meant no previews of Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy or Demi Moore’s Striptease) and Paramount (no promotions for Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible), the March 4-7 gathering was high on the hoopla and heavy on the star power. Among the highlights:

— When in Vegas…
Disney, as is its wont, pulled out all the stops for its presentation at — where else? — the Aladdin Hotel. Leslie Nielsen, promoting the upcoming comedy Spy Hard, buzzed the stage in a fake prop plane, and exhibitors were treated to a 23-minute segment of Disney’s summer centerpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After the clip, 600 costumed gypsy dancers paraded in the aisles under 300 pounds of fluttering confetti. ”Given that Disney can make even gargoyles lovable,” says Bert Manzari of California-based Landmark Theatres, ”it has the potential to be at least as successful as Beauty and the Beast.”

Of course, not all such publicity stunts came off so smoothly. There was one Cruella De Vil-ish moment: After showing a clip of the studio’s live-action 101 Dalmatians, dog wranglers unleashed a pack of adorable spotted puppies. Most bounded across the stage happily. But one lame pup that had strained its paw before the show limped slowly behind the pack. After the rest of the dogs had cleared the stage, the gimpy pooch painfully pulled himself to one side, where, to the audience’s relief, a trainer finally rescued him. (A Disney spokeswoman reports the puppy has recovered.)

Blockbusters or bust
After Hunchback, the hottest tickets at the convention were for Warner Bros.’ disaster thriller Twister, Fox’s alien-invasion fest Independence Day, and Disney’s kidnap caper Ransom, all of which had heart-stopping trailers. Ransom reunites the Lethal Weapon 3 duo of Mel Gibson and Rene Russo; Twister and Independence Day boast crowd-pleasing special effects and are ”kicking ass already,” says an envious Chris Pula, head of theatrical marketing for rival New Line Cinema.

The sporting life
Theater owners were also surprisingly enthusiastic about a slew of sports-based movies due this summer. Among the jock flicks that exhibitors were rah-rah about: Eddie, starring Whoopi Goldberg as a New York Knicks fan who gets a chance to coach the team; Tin Cup, featuring Kevin Costner and Don Johnson as golfing rivals; and Space Jam, starring hoop greats Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Of course, Jordan and Bird are only second-stringers behind the real star: Bugs Bunny.

Ah-nuld speaks
Leave it to Mr. Sensitivity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to add some color — or rather, off-color — to the proceedings. The muscleman dominated the Warner lunch while promoting his high-tech adventure, Eraser, with his off-the-bicep banter. First he referred to the assembled Warner brass at the lunch as, ??the executives that inspired 12 Monkeys.?? Later, he introduced Sandra Bullock as ??another great female yummy for the tummy.?? And he told the audience that his Eraser costar Vanessa Williams played a role that had ??originally been written for a white woman.?? Keenen Ivory Wayans followed up by saying that ??the role I wanted in The Glimmer Man was also meant for a white woman.?? Then Don Johnson got up and joked that in Tin Cup, ??I play a white woman.??

A blinding assemblage
Fox’s star-packed presentation brought the following together on one stage: Bullock, Schwarzenegger, Warren Beatty, Morgan Freeman, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hanks, Howie Long, Bill Pullman, Keanu Reeves, Meg Ryan, Winona Ryder, Will Smith, Liv Tyler, Sigourney Weaver, and, surprisingly, Garth Brooks, who now truly has friends in high places — he’s producing the family drama Colors of Christmas, due in 1997.

The cutest trailer. Really.
The clip for Joe’s Apartment, Warner’s July comedy based on the cult MTV short, showed a group of cockroaches singing, dancing, and diving into a toilet for a synchronized swimming routine.

And the most mind-bendingly important breakthrough in the history of cinema
At ShoWest’s trade fair, a company named Berjis Innovation & Design introduced 2-POP, ??an innovative and entertaining way to enjoy snacking foods,?? as the company literature says. 2-POP is a popcorn container that attaches to the top of a soda cup — a straw protruding through the side of the package allows you to drink the soda on the bottom, while the popcorn sits on top, creating one versatile refreshment carryall. Finally, a movie debut we can sink our teeth into.

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