Will gizmos give biz new juice?

Cameron says 3-D could get auds back to multiplex

Several years ago, Michael V. Lewis produced a 50-minute, 3-D IMAX movie with a cast of dinosaurs that were so life-like, they appeared to step out of the Mesozoic era and into the modern world.

For years, 3D cinema was a cultural dinosaur, conjuring memories of plastic spectacles and splitting headaches. Like other exhibition novelties of the post-War era — Cinerama, Cinemascope, Todd-A.O. 70mm and Smell-O-vision — 3D arrived as movie admissions were dropping, and suburban families began spending more time parked in front of the box in their living rooms.

Last year, U.S. exhibs added 657 screens, but ticket sales flagged, dropping 2.4% from 2003. As more Americans stay home to watch DVD’s, play videogames and cruise the Internet, exhibs are casting around for new ideas and attractions. It’s no surprise that exhibition formats like 3D and IMAX have caught the zeitgeist.

Boosters of 3D cinema, large-screen technology and digital projection rep a vocal minority of the exhibition biz, but they were out in droves at ShoWest, providing high-tech demos, announcing partnerships with theater chains, and vying for attention amid studio screenings of footage from traditional 2D attractions like “Miss Congeniality 2,” “Stealth” and “The Fantastic Four.”

Most of the 3-D excitement at ShoWest was reserved for George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Robert Rodriguez — digital cinema’s Fantastic Four – who flew to Vegas on March 17 to hype the format, screening stereoscopic footage from “Star Wars” and other films.

But there was plenty of chatter about IMAX, whose 3D format for “Polar Express” generated $45 million in ticket sales last year, and heightened curiosity about Sony Electronics’ new high-resolution 4K projectors. Six of these sleek, black contraptions, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Jamie Foxx’s futuristic aircraft in Sony’s summer technothriller, “Stealth,” have been bought by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner for installation in Landmark Theaters.

Lewis, who is co-founder with Joshua Green of REAL D, was also making the rounds in Vegas. His dinosaur movie, “T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous,” sold $50 million IMAX tickets back in 1998. Now he’s going head-to-head with IMAX in an effort to push his own patented system for delivering 3D movies to multiplexes. Theater circuits have taken interest in the process, too. REAL D just struck a deal with Mann Theatres to equip Grauman’s Chinese with its 3D hardware and software.

Today, there are 3,600 movie screens in America, but fewer than 100 venues with 3D equipment. Lewis predicts that with the support of Lucas et al, there will be 1,000 3D screens by mid-2006.

Some studio execs are skeptical. “It’s a fad,” sniffs one distribution topper. “Even if there are 1000 screens, that matters no more to this business than a $2 chip matters to this casino.”

Asked about IMAX’s impact on U.S. box office, National Association of Theater Owners topper John Fithian expressed only modest expectations for the format. “IMAX is important but it’s still small,” Fithian says. “It’s not yet a significant trend.”

For his part, IMAX chair and prexy Greg Foster notes, “Up until now, IMAX is the only company that has demonstrated a profitable way to release 3D film. He says it took IMAX more than a decade of trial and error to perfect its technology, including such details as the curve and color of the screen, ensuring that people don’t walk out of shows cross-eyed, and even washing the 3D glasses in between shows.

Interest in 3D has been extremely beneficial to IMAX. The Toronto-based company expanded into ten new theaters following its “Polar Express” windfall, and has seen its stock rise 40% since the pic’s debut.

But the company has modest predictions about the spread of 3D into megaplexes. “3D film is harder than people think,” Foster says. “And it will take longer than people think.”

Separating the reality from the hype is never easy in the permanent twilight of ShoWest, where exhibitors mingle in fake Parisian shops beneath a replica of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a circus sideshow atmosphere, readymade for a company like IMAX, which got its start manufacturing film technology for the 1967 World’s Fair.

The wide-screen gimmicks of the 1950s, not coincidentally, also had their roots in world’s fair technology expos and circus stunts. Cinerama was the brainchild of Fred Waller, a special effects artist for Paramount who also invented of water skis.

“This Is Cinerama,” the movie that sparked the wide-screen revolution, began with a sequence shot trough a movie camera attached to the front of a roller coaster. Other sequences offered a bird’s-eye-view of Niagara falls and a point-of-view shot from the nose of a diving B25 airplane. Movie patrons at New York’s Broadway Theater in 1952 reportedly clutched their seats and ransacked nearby pharmacies for Dramamine.

ShoWest conventioneers who watched a 50-minute preview of “Stealth” got a similar jolt. Rob Cohen’s high-velocity drama is shot through with scenes of flaming jet engines, cartwheeling military hardware and noisy aircraft carrier landings.

“Stealth” will be shipped to thousands of theaters on July 29 the old-fashioned way — in reels of celluloid, spliced together and screened on aging, sprocket-driven projectors.

Adrenaline junkies will have to make do. For all the cutting-edged technology studios use before striking the first negative, the distribution biz remains rooted in the 20th century — at least until Lucas and other 3D boosters persuade chains to install more high-tech projectors.

(Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.)

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