Once-skeptical exhibs and distribs flock to format

MADRID — Suddenly, but decisively, Europe is embracing 3-D. Opening with Pixar’s “Up,” Cannes underscored Europe’s newfound 3-D faith.

“Cannes was the defining 3-D moment. It was all about 3-D,” says Erik Jensen at Belgium’s CDC United Network.

A dozen or more 3-D films, five of which hail from Europe, hit Cannes’ market. At least 20 3-D indie pics, including pioneering Euro 3-D tooners “Holy Night!” from Spain’s Dygra, and Pascal Herold’s “Cinderella,” are now in production.

And Cannes 3-D deals got done.

France’s StudioCanal licensed “Around the World in 50 Years” worldwide. Nu Image sold “Dark Country” to France, Italy and Spain.

Italy’s Eagle Pics bought “Sanctum” and “Around the World,” having picked up “Ocean World” at Berlin. Even low-budget family picture “Call of the Wild” sold to several territories.

With the economics of 3-D now in place and the B.O. upside clearly demonstrated, and with Hollywood icons and Euro exhibitors trumpeting 3-D commitments, the format has gained critical mass.

For European exhibition, “The tipping point’s December 2008 through February 2009,” says David Hancock, head of cinema at research company Screen Digest. In December, Odeon/UCI, Europe’s biggest theater loop with 1,600 screens, announced it would outfit another 70 venues, bringing its DCI-compliant total to 111 cinemas across Europe that have digital or full-fledged 3-D systems. (It has also committed to upgrade another 89 eventually).

“After Odeon’s declaration, other exhibitors had to decide whether they were out or in with 3-D,” Hancock comments.

They were in: From late January through February, big chains — Britain’s Cineworld and Vue Entertainment, Holland’s Amsterdam Booking Co. — made large 3-D announcements. France’s Cineville followed in March, rival CGR in April.

Combined, the exhibitors’ promised around 1,000 additional 3-D screens.

For distribs, the main game changer’s been 3-D B.O. Odeon/UCI’s Drew Kaza glows about 3-D grosses from “Chicken Little” to “Beowulf” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” European distributors also cite a bevy of 3-D faith-forging B.O. milestones, most between October and Cannes. Released in October in Gaul, Ben Stassen’s “Fly Me to the Moon” punched a $40,839 print average, doubling normal print figures, one Gallic distrib enthuses.

The 3-D explosion comes, crucially, amid the broader-picture downturn.

“The straight-to-DVD market is dead. Sales agents need to sell movies with clear theatrical potential. 3-D films are theatrical films by definition,” argues Vicente Canales, head of international at Filmax, which received offers at Cannes from “nearly every major territory” for “Magic Journey to Africa.”

European 3-D rollout is still patchy: Germany — a forecast year-end 149 screens — and Scandinavia are off the pace, though Svensk acquisitions head Robert Enmark hopes “Avatar” will boost Scandi exhibitor investment.

Already, though, the indie 3-D boom threatens a bust.

“I saw a lot of promos in 3-D. The successes will have to be good quality. It’s going to be very hard to get the screens they need,” Vairo says.

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