For Hollywood, the stakes are never higher than they are at ShoWest, the annual Las Vegas convention where theater owners get their first peek at the summer movie crop. With 7,500 guests, this year's gathering was the biggest in two decades and so was the spectacle, as the studios trotted out megawatt stars, lengthy trailers, and live animals. Some highlights:
Biggest roar: Disney went all out for The Lion King, the animated tale of a young lion who grows up to rule the jungle. In addition to an extended clip from the June release, the extravaganza featured a dazzling stage show (gospel singers, dancing brooms, flying carpets), a buffet dinner in a circus tent, and a menagerie of monkeys, zebras, lions, and giraffes. ''It'll make $250 million,'' predicted one rival marketing exec.
Hippest buzz: The Mask, because of the suddenly hot Jim Carrey, and Forrest Gump, in which Tom Hanks stars as a lovable dimwit who becomes a football star, war hero, and tycoon. Said Hanks: ''I guarantee you will experience the medical sensation known as optical poptitude. You will not be able to believe your eyes.'' Sure enough, the Zelig-esque trailer (which shows Gump being greeted by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) left exhibitors in awe.
Most tantalizing trailer: The clip for Interview With the Vampire featured a red satin sheet blowing in the breeze and not a second of Tom Cruise as bloodsucker Lestat.
A feast for the eyes: Warner Bros. brought together Cruise, Warren Beatty, Jodie Foster, Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Macaulay Culkin, Demi Moore (and new baby Tallulah), Michael Douglas, and Mel Gibson at one long dais.
Goofiest moment: To promote Maverick, the ''politically correct Western,'' Foster said filmmakers made an effort ''not to use beasts in any sort of bestial way.'' She then leaped on Gibson's back and rode him like a horse around the dais.
Best quip: ShoWest's designated ''Star of the Century,'' Harrison Ford, to theater owners: ''I'll make you a deal. I'll try to keep making films that put people in your theater seats, and you try to keep their shoes from sticking to the floor.''
Best tribute: Robin Williams, while passing Kirk Douglas at a press conference: ''Spartacus!''
Worst running gag: Flintstones jokes. In speech after speech, people called it ''the most colossal event since the Ice Age,'' with ''no stone unturned'' in promotion, and a ''rock-solid team'' on board. ''You'll have to be living under a rock not to know that The Flintstones is coming,'' said one exec. Okay! We get it!