3D pays off at box office

This year's tally increases three-fold over 2008

The B.O. haul for 3D pics has swelled to $1.3 billion this year, and that’s before 20th Century Fox opens James Cameron’s 3D fantasy epic “Avatar” around the globe on Friday in the widest 3D release to date. This year’s take marks a three-fold increase over 2008’s roughly $307 million tally for 3D titles.

The spike supports the argument that the format is living up to its promise and boosting the overall bottom line thanks to the premium price charged for 3D titles. On average, the upcharge is $2-$3, and more in some markets.

Domestic B.O. revenues for 2009 are running at record levels and are set to jump the $10 billion mark for the first time ever in any given year. Through Sunday, revenues were $9.61 billion.

Leading this year’s crop of 3D pics at the domestic B.O. is Disney/Pixar’s “Up” at $293 million. Overseas, the toon has grossed $390 million for a worldwide total of $683 million.

Internationally, the clear winner is Fox’s 3D toon “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” which cumed a staggering $687.1 million, one of the best foreign totals of all time. Three-quel grossed $196.6 million domestically for a worldwide total of $883.7 million.

Second-highest grosser domestically was DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s “Monsters vs. Aliens,” cuming $198.4 million. Overseas, toon grossed $183.1 million for a total of $381.5 million.

Other $100 million-plus titles domestically include Robert Zemeckis’ “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” which has grossed $124.4 million so far in its run; Sony’s toon “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” ($122.7 million); and Disney’s CGI/live-action kidpic “G-Force” ($119.4 million).

Avatar” is another crucial test for modern-day 3D, since it is the first all-audience event pic to use the technology. So far, the biggest 3D titles have been animated.

Avatar” will debut in more than 2,000 3D theaters domestically, and more than 4,000 playdates internationally, according to early estimates. (Ultimately, the international count will be nearer to 5,000 once the film opens in all territories.)

In November, “Christmas Carol” could go out in roughly 1,800 3D theaters domestically.

Theater owners and studios have been at odds over who should bear the cost of converting screens to 3D, but the conversion has been picking up speed.

RealD, far and away the market leader in outfitting theaters with 3D technology, said more than 100 million moviegoers have experienced films in RealD.

The RealD 3D platform counts among its partners 19 of the world’s top 20 exhibitors. It has 9,500 screens under contract, and 4,800 screens installed in 48 countries with 300 exhibition partners.

RealD included a quote from Cameron in its press release announcing the milestone.

Cameron said the company has “done a tremendous job building a global platform in a short period of time where filmmakers can showcase their work using this new cinematic medium.”

Outside of RealD’s vast footprint, Dolby 3D Digital Cinemas is also a major supplier. Imax Theaters also show 3D titles at an even higher ticket price.

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