Plexes to upgrade with top directors

The future’s so bright, you’ll have to wear shades — or polarized lenses, to be precise — to appreciate the revolution in 3-D filmmaking.

Over the years, audiences have been jabbed in the eye often enough to be wary of the faddish, even gimmicky nature of 3-D, compounded in the past by headache-inducing red-blue anaglyph glasses. But this time around, the format is here to stay, say top execs from virtually every studio. Thanks to advances in digital projection, the picture looks crystal clear and supports, for the first time, the prospect of a wide 3-D release.

“I couldn’t be more excited about it,” says DreamWorks Animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg, who recently announced the studio’s intention to release every toon in 3-D, beginning with 2009′s “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

“I think it is the single most important transformational innovation that has occurred in the filmmaking business in 60 years, since color,” he tells Variety. “To have spent all these years here, to see something come along that could literally transform your business and give you new opportunities — creative, financial, just on every level — is pretty amazing. It answers a critical issue about piracy and video windows.”

Paramount, New Line, Disney, Sony, Warner and Fox all have major 3-D projects in the works. 3ality Digital’s live-action “U2 3D” wowed auds at Cannes, where the market was buzzing with pitches for stereoscopic projects. And with helmers like James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Robert Rodriguez sold on the format, exhibitors can rest assured that content from the industry’s top innovators is on the way.

Content will drive conversion, first to digital projection, and then to 3-D with a simple upgrade offered by companies such as Real D or Dolby. For the digital 3-D releases of “Chicken Little,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Meet the Robinsons,” Disney helped push Real D installations in several hundred theaters. Those pics, in turn, delivered per-screen grosses two to three times those for “flat” 35mm presentations of the same film (aided by auds’ willingness to pay premiums of up to 30% for tickets).

“It’s just a matter of time before the tipping point for 3-D happens because, like anything else, if the content exists, the technology will come up to support it,” says Buena Vista distribution prexy Chuck Viane.

By May 29, 2009, a date on which two 3-D films are currently scheduled to open wide — “Monsters vs. Aliens” and Cameron’s “Avatar” — there should be at least 4,000 screens capable of projecting digital 3-D, estimates Real D chairman-CEO Michael Lewis. “3-D has sort of been the killer app of digital. As more and more of these films come out and we see them perform well, there’s going to be an even bigger push to get more screens out there. So if the content keeps up, I think we’ll see a lot more than 4,000.”

That’s a realistic estimate, explains Nancy Fares, business manager for Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema Products division, since there are already more than 4,000 DLP projectors in the market. “With the deployment happening today, potentially every single screen that is a DLP cinema can be 3-D enabled,” she says.

In the meantime, Paramount hopes to release “Beowulf” on at least 1,000 screens in November, and New Line expects that number to double before “Journey 3-D” (the first live-action narrative feature shot in digital 3-D) opens in August 2008.

Walden, which produced “Journey,” is fully committed to the format, which the company has been investigating since 2001, when co-founder Cary Granat first partnered with Cameron to produce two underwater docus, “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep,” as a way of exploring stereoscopic filmmaking.

“In fairness, there really hasn’t been a film in the last 10 years that’s been purposefully produced only as a 3-D film, versus films that have been converted to 3-D for select sequences and theaters, which is why we shot ‘Journey’ the way we did, with every scene in mind for fully immersing you in the frame,” says Granat.

The 3-D format has a very bumpy history, and even though the polarization method (a major improvement over those red-blue lenses used for “Spy Kids 3-D”) has existed for more than 70 years, the method’s dependence on two projectors made it largely impractical.

For the past two decades, only Imax programmed polarized 3-D pics with any regularity, crossing over from special-interest docus to Hollywood tentpoles with “The Polar Express” in 2005.

The film earned $65 million in Imax 3-D and prompted the company to try the same approach with computer-animated “The Ant Bully” and “Open Season” as well as select live-action sequences from “Superman Returns” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” (To stay competitive, Imax will also upgrade to digital projectors, planning to switch from its current two-strip 70mm system in 2009.)

“When ‘Polar Express’ came out, I think we were a little euphoric, and we thought, ‘Put it in 3-D, and they will come,’” says Imax co-chair and co-CEO Rich Gelfond. “Since then, our views have been refined a little bit, and we’ve learned it really has to be the right kind of project. It’s not the magic bullet.”

“You can’t just start making 3-D movies on any script,” agrees “Journey” producer Beau Flynn. “It really only works for sci-fi, fantasy, action.”

But others are more optimistic. “It’s going to be a lot broader than that,” says Katzenberg. “If you look at the 500 movies released each year, you’ll see pretty consistently that about 65 movies represent about 75% of the business. I went back and looked at the last three years using my own litmus test, and I think more than two-thirds of those 65 films would lend themselves to 3-D, so if you do the math, that’s more than 50% of the business.”

“The biggest thing about 3-D is education,” says Buzz Hays, a senior producer on Sony Imageworks’ 3-D stereoscopic pipeline. “Very few directors have any experience with it whatsoever, but if you get them to step away from the video monitor for a few seconds, the whole world is 3-D.”

And even if the learning curve is steep at first, it’s a new toy that’s already attracted the business’s top helmers. If Cameron can make it work with “Avatar,” and Spielberg and Jackson are ready to try it on “Tintin,” surely the rest of the industry will follow.

Based on technology already in development for home viewing, Granat forecasts another major innovation facing the theatrical 3-D experience.

“Eventually, what you’re going to see is that you don’t need glasses,” he says. “That’s probably about two years away.”

Thomson’s Technology Division and DLP predict it’s farther off than that, but confirm the possibility.

In 3-D’s bright future, maybe you won’t need shades after all.

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