Saturday, February 14, 2009

Join Me Sunday... I lead a roundtable journalists discussion on the status of minorities in the movies at the annual Neonfest Film Festival's Sunday brunch. It's at 11 a.m. at Las Palmas Marichi Restaurant in Commercial Center at 953 E. Sahara, Suite A-27. The phone # there is 702-732-0010.

Here's the 411:

A Journalists Panel On The State Of Film Depiction For Gays, Blacks, Women and More

As the status of minorities changes in American culture, how is that reflected in the movies? This year's Oscar contenders offer some indications, with films about a slain gay civil rights leader and an Indian game show in the running for best picture and a spoof on black-face earning another star a supporting actor nomination, not to mention that the oft-scorned chick flick proved big box office business this year. What's changed? Did the historic Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama tussle last year alter public perceptions of women and blacks and is that being seen on screen? Has anything important shifted since the last time a major gay film, "Brokeback Mountain," was in the running for Best Picture? What about people with disabilities? Transgender people? Other races?

This will be a freewheeling panel in which the audience is encouraged to offer their views. Panelists include freelance journalist Steve Friess, independent filmmaker Marlene Adrian, Las Vegas Weekly film reviewer Josh Bell and Las Vegas Weekly staff writer T.R. Witcher.

Friday, February 13, 2009

If Misery Loves Company...

...then Las Vegas should be delighted that it's not the only 1.5-trick, over-speculated, environmentally ridiculous place on Earth where the real estate is in a freefall, overly ambitious building projects have been stalled or canceled and unemployment is exploding. From today's NY Times, with hat tip to Mike_ch who posted the link on Facebook:

Some things are clear: real estate prices, which rose dramatically during Dubai’s six-year boom, have dropped 30 percent or more over the past two or three months in some parts of the city. Last week, Moody’s Investor’s Service announced that it might downgrade its ratings on six of Dubai’s most prominent state-owned companies, citing a deterioration in the economic outlook. So many used luxury cars are for sale , they are sometimes sold for 40 percent less than the asking price two months ago, car dealers say. Dubai’s roads, usually thick with traffic at this time of year, are now mostly clear.

Read it here. And there is Vegas relevance, even if it's not spelled out in the article. The Dubai folks, you might recall, have been MGM Mirage's safety net/ATM. Ut-oh.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mr. Mayor Backs Down...Sorta

Mayor Oscar Goodman had an animated (is there any other word for anything involving him?) press conference today that I may post as a podcast because it gives you some insight into why this mayor and city are different than any other. (He starts with a recap of his public activities in recent weeks which includes all his press interviews and discusses that the presser has to be shorter than usual because he has to go hang out with some Sports Illustrated models. It's entertaining listening, as city officials go.)

Anyhow, the mayor spoke early about his continued demand that President Obama clarify his Indiana statements which evidently have been taken by many to suggest that businesses ought not hold conventions here. Regardless of whether that's what the president said -- the transcript does not seem to reflect that -- it does seem to be how it's been taken.

Yet when I asked him whether a clarification and an apology were the same thing, he said no and then acknowledged that his call for an apology was a mistake. He sort of claimed he didn't have all the information when he said that and seemed to suggest he was trapped by KLAS's Edward Lawrence into the remark. That's all interesting because as of last night when the Mayor appeared on Fox News, he was still saying he wanted an apology. And that came after the Las Vegas Sun posted a piece yesterday that said he was backing down on the apology request. So it seems to depend who's asking and what time of day.

Still, he wants a clarification from the president that Las Vegas is a legitimate place to come to hold business meetings and conventions and he even conceded that perhaps using bailout money to hold junkets and have leisure trips isn't the right way to go.

One reporter asked what he'd do if Obama didn't respond to him. His giggly answer, "I'll cry."

Mr. Mayor is on Lou Dobbs's CNN show tonight, from what I hear. And he was referred to as Oscar Goldman by Rush Limbaugh yesterday. Don't know if there's a transcript of that out there somewhere -- not sure what El Rushbo was saying although I suspect he was probably crowing about dissension between Democrats -- but Goodman joked about it when I stumbled and almost called him that myself during the press conference.

LVW Col: How Danny Got His Groove Back

I admit it; I never thought I'd write this column. But it's nice when something turns out better than expected, right? Here's this week's Strip Sense piece.

How Danny Got His Groove Back


This column was supposed to be an examination of the three major impressionist acts opening here within a fortnight of one another. I expected to praise Wannabe Danny Gans Gordie Brown for his vigor and Replacement Danny Gans Terry Fator for his efforts to remain fresh and relevant, and that arc would lead me back to my long-standing complaint about the Real Danny Gans, which is that he had lost his vigor and his material had gone offensively stale.

And so, for my research, I ran out to catch Brown’s opening night at the Golden Nugget last Thursday, I got Fator, moving into Gans’ former space at the Mirage this month, on the phone for an interview on Friday, and then on Friday night I spent $95 a seat to sit in the balcony for Gans’ reemergence at Wynn Las Vegas.

Except something very odd happened at Wynn. Danny Gans, the brunt of my jokes and my ire for several years now, made me laugh. A lot. He also made a nearly two-hour show zip by without my ever checking my watch, which is a considerable accomplishment. And, much more importantly to me, he made the friend I brought along with me—a woman who has been crying on and off for two weeks because her 18-year-old just shipped off to Air Force boot camp—smile so much that she briefly forgot her grief and worry for a little while even after we walked out.

Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I left the showroom thoroughly disoriented.

Read the rest HERE

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nicely done, Mr. Mayor

Keep in mind only 41 percent of those who voted said in a companion survey they thought Obama was doing well with the economy. So these aren't folks in the tank for Obama. Not scientific, but with numbers like that, you have to wonder whose remarks got broader attention.

1000th Post!

Wow. That's a lot for exactly 23 months, 1.4 posts a day to be exact. I started this blog as an adjunct to the podcast with an exclusive pictorial on the site of the soon-to-be imploded Stardust on March 11, 2007. And it's gone well beyond the podcast for two implosions, my wedding, a name change, several show openings and closings, countless bylines, dozens columns, some entertaining feuds and reconciliations, plenty of breaking news, an awful lot of silly decisions by the Review-Journal's dot-com folks and much more.

No big whoop here except that I do have a new poll up, finally. Looking back on the Stardust stuff made me misty-eyed for bygone days. So let us know which resort or casino you miss most!

Ginning Up Controversy

Mayor Oscar Goodman is pipin' mad at President Obama and the local media is all over it. Here's KLAS's Eddie Lawrence, for example, and Ben Spillman of the Review-Journal.

Except that the premise of both those stories and Goodman's outrage are false.

Obama was responding to a question about corporate responsibility in an appearance in Indiana. Among the recent reports to catch notice was Wells Fargo's plan, later canceled after a public shaming, to go on a lavish junket to the Wynn after taking a huge government bailout. This was a so-called "appreciation" event, an effort to reward high-achieving employees. That seemed extravagant to some when the banks are taking huge publicly funded bailouts, so it fit the narrative of automaker CEOs flying private jets to their Congressional begging session and the like.

Here's what Obama said: "You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime."

Yet all of these stories make it sound like Obama offered a full-throated assault on the entire Vegas convention industry. He said nothing about holding meetings or conventions in Las Vegas. He spoke about this in the context of extravagances, of leisure activities. The Wells Fargo event wasn't a meeting or a conference. They weren't planning to do any business. They were going to vacate and indulge, presumably for a job well done even though it's hard for many to see who could deserve it considering these companies' dire straits.

I'm not opining about who's right or wrong here. Dave Schwartz of UNLV makes an interesting case in favor of such trips and John L. Smith in the Review-Journal yesterday was satirically brutal about the same.

But the mayor is complaining about something that never happened, and the local press is filling out the details by allowing the mayor to take the president out of context. True, Goldman Sachs, also a bailout baby, moved a business meeting at the Mandalay Bay to a Marriott in San Francisco out of fear of looking bad. But that's not something the president himself said and so far, it's one example and still within the banking sphere.

Funny thing is, in the process the mayor may actually be endangering the convention business himself. By ginning this up, by turning it into something Drudge-worthy, he's introducing to many meeting planners and companies a thought that hadn't crossed or become firm in their minds: "Will it look bad if we hold this thing in Vegas this year?"

Before the mayor's outrage, I suspect most folks knew that Obama was talking about junkets and excess. Now, I wonder if the stigma has been amplified 100 times over.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No live chat tonight, but...

...we have worked out a way to do a show here at home while LVRocks.Com finds a new location. And I'm trying to find out if we can get the website to play it later in the week so we can have our chat experience. Keep watch here and we'll see what's what, but expect a show either way.

Well, This Sucks...

I don't often post stock analyst assessments, but this one from Robert LaFleur at Susquehanna Investment Group was so pointed and dire -- and depressing -- that it was worth posting. There's a document attached to this summary, but the summary is enough to make anyone whose livelihood and fortunes are remotely connected to the success of Las Vegas to want to jump off the Eiffel Tower, real or replica. Here goes:

Stripping It Down: Is Las Vegas Boulevard the New Skid Row?

We think that Las Vegas operators face the most treacherous period in the Strip's 68-year history. Since 1990, we have seen a ten-fold increase in capital deployed on the Strip and only a five-fold increase in profits. Even so, the past five years brought about a big run-up in leverage and equity valuations. Unfortunately, the profitability of today's Vegas operators is overly dependant on a foundation of high room rates that is simply not sustainable in the face of the severe consumer pull-back we now confront. Operators that are being forced to aggressively discount room prices to fill their properties are seeing severe negative operating leverage wreak havoc on profitability. Overleveraged and facing dysfunctional capital markets, Las Vegas can ill afford this crippling rate war. While the Street has been aware of these trends for over a year and $90+ billion of public gaming equity has evaporated, we think things are even worse than many perceive. Despite this massive correction, we do not believe we have yet reached bottom. As a result, we have again reduced earnings estimates for the Vegas-exposed operators in our universe and downgrade MGM and WYNN, and reiterated our neutral view on LVS.


  • A good story gone bad. It is tough to lose money in the gambling business. In the early 1990s, the dawn of modern Las Vegas, profits and returns were attractive. Over time, the casinos got bigger, fancier, and costlier. Rising profits failed to keep pace with capital spending and returns fell. Cheap debt and equity fueled the fire and by mid-2008 the Strip was exceptionally vulnerable to the severe downturn that arrived.
  • A tale of two myths. The run up in leverage and multiples in the post-9/11 era was built on two myths. First was the industry's "recession resistance," its experience in the early 1990s and after 9/11 as gaming seemed immune to the consumer cycle. The second was that Strip properties "weren't in the casino business anymore," as their revenue had diversified away from gambling so their earnings were inherently less volatile. As rooms operations became a major profit source, it was argued that Strip operators should trade at higher lodging-like multiples, not traditionally lower casino multiples. Unfortunately, given the price elasticity of demand in Las Vegas, properties more reliant on rooms revenue than gaming revenue are riskier and more cyclical.
  • Room rates, room rates, room rates. While the square footage of casino space on the Strip increased 2.6x from 1990-2008, casino department profits per square foot only grew about 0.6% per year. By contrast, hotel rooms on the Strip increased 2.8x over that period, but hotel department profits per available room grew about 6.4% per year. By 2008, casino operations only generated about 35% of department profits on the Strip, down from 62% in 1990. By contrast, rooms generated 39%, up from 25%. Looked at another way, rooms operations produced almost twice as much of the collective department profit growth on the Strip from 1990-2008 than casino operations did. Given the high operating leverage of rooms operations - both positive and negative - overall Strip profits are now very vulnerable to a collapse in room rates.
  • What's next? Las Vegas is now tied to the economy so the economy needs to firm. Assets needed to be re-priced, but the $90 billion of public equity that has been wiped out took care of that. Likewise, gaming must complete the painful de-leveraging process it is currently in. Looking ahead, we think the cost of capital will rise as spreads and equity multiples return to their pre-9/11 ranges. Moreover, we think that in order to be relevant in a post-prosperity society, Las Vegas needs to rediscover the value proposition that it moved away from this past decade. Finally, gaming as a unit growth story is over. Going forward, managements will need to focus on prudent, returns-oriented capital deployment and operational cash flow maximization. Instead of unit growth, free cash flow should be deployed for de-levering, buybacks, and dividends. This will be a dramatic but necessary change in the way gaming companies have operated for the past 20 years, but it will insure gaming's viability.
  • Limited equity value left. As we detail in the accompanying reports, this dire situation will pressure the earnings of MGM, LVS, and WYNN. It is hard to find equity value in MGM, so we have downgraded it to Negative. WYNN has a survivor's balance sheet, but it is hard to paint a bull scenario. While we think WYNN is the best of breed among the Las Vegas operators, right now that is a bit like having the nicest cabin on a sinking ship, so we are downgrading WYNN to Neutral. LVS is fairly priced and we remain Neutral.

Wasn't that FUN?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Breaking: No Implosion Imminent for Greek Isles

A euphoric email was sent around tonight by Maggie Cupp of Dillstar Productions, the producer of "The Soprano's Last Supper" at the Greek Isles, announcing the property has been seized by bankers who have essentially voided recent buyer D.I. Development Group's plan for a two-tower, 780-room replacement property.

DI bought the place for $48.8 million in July and announced only a few weeks ago that they had county approval for the new development plan.

For Cupp, this is a victory because it means the hotel's demise is no longer in sight. According to her email: "We were just informed by the Management at the GREEK that the bank has come on property and has brought in a NEW General Manager to take over all Casino/Hotel operations effective today! They have also brought in a Receiver that will protect the banks assets from this point on. Their plan is to continue operations and invest money to keep things running until the market bears a sale of the Casino."

The Greek Isles used to be the Debbie Reynolds Hotel, the Paddlewheel and, before that, the Royal Inn. It's on Convention Center Drive. I was most recently there for a terrible show, "Wizard: The Musical Journey of Oz Composer Harold Arlen" last year. There were six people there that night. The R-J's Mike Weatherford, bafflingly, gave it a B-. Maybe out of sympathy. He only gave Soprano's a C and still Cupp copied him on the email.

Anyhow, it's looking like 2009 will be an implosion-less year. Sigh.

Legend Vince Paterson To Direct/Choreograph Cirque's Elvis Show

Update: Mike Weatherford has already reported this as well. It didn't come up when I went looking all over for prior references, but I wanted to give credit where it's due.

The Cirque folks have been extremely tight-lipped about the much-anticipated Elvis show at Aria opening later this year. But very solid sources told me Vince Paterson will be directing and choreographing it, and Cirque has now confirmed this. And that's a huge, huge deal.

Who is Paterson? One of the world's most sought-after choreographers, that's all. Among his credits is Madonna's "Blonde Ambition" tour and Michael Jackson's "Bad" tour. Here is a 1-minute YouTube clip where he explains how Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" video came to be.

He's also responsible for the Marie Antoinette image of Madonna struck (left) for her "Vogue" performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. He got a Tony nomination for his work on the stage version of "Kiss of the Spiderwoman," did the choreography for such films as "The Bird Cage," "Closer," and "Evita," has created videos for Van Halen, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and David Lee Roth. Last year, he was a judge on the Bravo dance competition "Step It Up and Dance."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Don't take a shower...

...until after you read this. The Review-Journal's Corey Levitan goes inside an aspect of the Las Vegas porn business in a way that is absolutely shocking for a family newspaper. I am no prude, really, and it's a very interesting, enlightening and entertaining story. But. Such explicit discussions of this type really do NOT belong in this venue. A cover story of CityLife or Las Vegas Weekly, maybe. But the family paper? Really?

What's more, I've got to wonder of the newspaper has the same decency standards for its website as it does for its print product. There's a video that goes with Corey's story online that actually shows some explicit imagery, too. See?

Wow. This is not material that the newspaper would publish in print, so I wonder why they'd show it on the Internet. Of course, these are the kinds of questions that only get asked in newsrooms where the Web is taken seriously, so I'm not surprised they've never been broached.

R-J Not Immune To Vegas' or Media's Economic Misery

It's no secret that both Las Vegas and the media at large are suffering acutely in this recession. But while the Review-Journal reports regularly on the latest firings and cutbacks in the broadcast media in this city, they do not report on their own fiscal woes.

Turns out, the R-J has recently informed its employees that there will be no more matching of the 401(k), is forcing employees to take accumulated vacation time and is asking some folks to take a few days off without pay. So far, no newsroom-wide cuts of a similar nature seem to have occurred at the Las Vegas Sun, although unsurprisingly some positions have been left vacant.

These are certainly not unusual moves. Employees at the Gannett media chain,
the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, have been forced to take a week off unpaid. The Orange County Register has laid off 210 people. The New York Times has had buyouts and sold 6.4 percent of the company to a Mexican billionaire to stay afloat. NPR cut a bunch of folks and ended several shows, including Weekend America and Day To Day, the loss of which Miles particularly grieves. There's even a depressing but riveting Twitter feed called The Media Is Dying.

So there's no aspersions to be cast here. The R-J folks are clearly trying to do what they can in a terrible climate to avoid having to lay anyone off.
They echo, in fact, some decisions made last week by Wynn Resorts. I hope they can. The newspaper was already pathetically understaffed in the first place. Maybe that will turn out to be fortunate in this extraordinary economic moment.

That Odd Pizza Contest I Judged

Gosh, I really wish someone at the celebrity pizza contest I judged on Wednesday had mentioned that I had a thin lock of hair making a smiley face on my forehead. You know, like fellow judge John Katsilometes. But he was too busy, I guess, stuffing his ballot in favor of this man right here, whose work he edits for Greenspun Media...

That, of course, is the inimitable Robin Leach, one of the eight competitors battling it out at the opening of the new Sammy's Woodfired Pizza place in the far southwest area of the Vegas Valley. (Yes, I misunderstood who was contending in my post the other day. I thought those folks were teaming up; that's what the press release said. Instead, each brought their own game.) The winner gets their pizza on the menu for two weeks this month at all five of their locations, with proceeds going to the winner's charity of choice.

Here's Robin, putting in his first honest day's work ever:

And here's one that has someone you know prominently in the background before that lock of hair dislodged itself:

I know what you're thinking looking at Robin's platter: That's a pizza? And the answer is, no, it really isn't. Which is why, despite my affection for Mr. Leach, I could not in good conscience give it high marks. It had cream cheese, salmon and caviar and was both difficult to eat and not especially pleasing. How did it come in second place? This photo should explain it...

Another clunker -- and I really wanted to like it -- was the concoction set forth by "Jersey Boys" stars Erich Bergen and Jeff Leibow who are not, despite appearance in this photo below, gay.

Theirs had a similar problem as Leach's, it was hard to eat -- the big pieces of ham came right off upon biting. But it was nice of them to give it a go.

The event was probably the most successful blatant publicity stunt I've ever seen. By snookering all of these journalists to be judges or participants, they got coverage here, on KLAS and KVBC, on the Las Vegas Sun's site, on Robin Leach's blog and elsewhere. I mean, there was a packed house AND a crowd of photographers for, what? The opening of a new pizza place? See? Some PR folks deserve a bonus.

Yes! That was our old pal George Wallace, frequent "The Strip" punchline for his disastrous appearance in 2005 when he lied to us about where he was and then abruptly ended the interview prematurely. Of course, he probably doesn't remember that and he certainly wouldn't know that I was the host. I did have a very funny exchange with him, though, when he came over to the judging table made up of five or six journalists and told us that his victory meant two free tickets to his show. My response: "Uh, everything means two free tickets to your show! If you vote, two free tickets. If you breath, two free tickets. If your name is George, two free tickets!" He just laughed.

The big winner turned out to be the local duo Zowie Bowie, who made a very tasty little white pizza featuring Gouda cheese, pineapples, pears, arugula, orange blossom honey and truffle oil. Here they are making it...

...and with the second-placer Leach and, at far left, third-placer KVBC entertainment gal Alicia Jacobs, who made a tossed-salad pizza that was surprisingly good. Surprising, that is, because this does NOT strike me as a chick who cooks...

If you honestly care, there's a cute 2-minute video that the Las Vegas Sun folks (read: Kats and Leach) assembled to go along with this probing piece on the event:

And, finally, here's one of the least probable photos you'd ever expect to see:

Again, thanks for everyone who warned me about that stray lock.