Theaters prep push for 'Avatar,' 'Christmas Carol'

Theater owners are scrambling to make sure they have enough 3D screens to make it a happy holiday season. This past year, moviegoers have proved their willingness to pay extra coin for a 3D ticket — particularly in foreign markets.

So exhibs around the globe have been adding screens as fast as they can before the Nov. 6 release of Disney’s “A Christmas Carol,” starring Jim Carrey, and the Dec. 18 bow of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” from 20th Century Fox.

At the beginning of the year, there were 900 theaters in the U.S. equipped to play 3D titles. That count has more than doubled in the months since, with Robert Zemeckis’ “Christmas Carol” expected to open in approximately 2,000 locations.

Fox expects there to be 2,400-2,500 3D locations in the U.S. by the time “Avatar” unspools. (Domestically, exhibs tally the number of theater locations, while overseas distributors use screen counts.)

Internationally, the number of 3D screens should more than triple by the end of the year, from 1,000 at the end of 2008 to roughly 3,200. That makes a worldwide screen count of approximately 6,700.

Fox and Disney had hoped for more locations to be in place — domestically, 3,000 locations would have been ideal — but not enough theaters had converted in time.

The U.K. and China have the most number of 3D screens of any foreign territory, at 400 each. They are followed closely by France at 380, Germany with 225, and Italy with 200. Russia’s count is on the rise, since many of its newly built multiplexes were equipped with digital capability from the start. Presently, Russia has 185 screens, followed closely by Mexico at 180.

Japan, the biggest international box office territory, lags behind with 150 3D screens. Korea has 120 and Australia, 100.

By next spring, there should be enough 3D locations to make studios happier as they fill up the 3D pipeline. There are 16 3D titles slotted already for 2010, starting with Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” on March 5.

There is a huge advantage to 3D screens, which can outperform a regular screen 3:1. For example, the 3D screen count for “Monsters vs. Aliens” repped only 20% of the total, yet accounted for 43% of the total gross. Similarly, Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” earned $240 million of its massive $682 million global B.O. from 3D screens, which repped only a fraction of the screen count.

However, the contentious debate between exhibs and studios over who should foot the bill for the conversion has been a major factor in the delay to get screens converted to digital projection. Studios ultimately agreed to pay a “virtual print fee” to U.S. exhibs, which will help offset the cost of switching to digital.

Then, just as the three largest U.S. theater chains — AMC, Cinemark and Regal — were going to use the VPF deals to secure a $1 billion line of credit for the conversion, the economy crashed.

The three circuits are working together through a consortium, Digital Cinema Implementation Partners (DCIP), which in turn is working with JP Morgan on the credit facilities.

Insiders say JPMorgan and DCIP are close to announcing a line of credit valued at somewhere around $500 million.

New Jersey-based Cinedigm Digital Cinema, which works with medium-sized and smaller circuits, found itself in the same boat, but last week announced it had secured a credit line of up to $100 million from GE Capital Media and Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Banking. Monies will be used to install up to 2,133 digital systems as part of Cinedigm’s rollout of 10,000 screens.

“In the last six weeks, things seem to have eased. They are doing everything they can to get these screens up and running,” says Paramount prexy of international distribution Andrew Cripps who is prepping the release of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” in March.

Distribs across the Middle East are scrambling to get 3D screens ready for “Avatar.” In Egypt, there are no 3D-equipped digital projectors, but 15 are expected by December. The United Arab Emirates has only two 3D locations, but will add more by Christmas.

“Everyone is rushing to be ready for ‘Avatar’ in December,” says distrib Mario Haddad, who reps 20th Century Fox across the Middle East and is handling the release of Cameron’s pic. “Films like ‘Ice Age’ and ‘Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs’ have proven that 3-D means a film can make up to four times the amount compared to when it is only shown in its regular version.”

As a broad audience tentpole instead of a toon, “Avatar” will mark a milestone for 3D. Cameron waited more than a decade to make his first film since “Titanic” so that technology could catch up with his dream of shooting in 3D. There’s enormous pressure on the pricey film to see bonanza business at the worldwide box office.

Now, all “Christmas Carol” and “Avatar” need is a little help from the ghost of Christmas present — and as many screens as possible.

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