James Cameron takes on daring test screenings

When James Cameron and Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chair Jim Gianopulos slipped into the back row of the Bridge Imax Theater on Friday night, it was for one of the more daring test screenings in recent memory.

The public was getting its first glimpse of Cameron’s 3-D pic “Avatar,” which blends live-action with CGI on a large scale.

Screenings of 16 minutes of footage from “Avatar” were held across the country in 102 Imax locations and in 238 additional theaters overseas. Tickets were free and given out during an online lottery.

The reason behind Fox’s decision to mount “Avatar Day” was two-fold: To whip up a fan base among moviegoers and encourage theater owners to install more 3-D screens before “Avatar” opens Dec. 18.

Filmmakers are generally leery about showing clips so early in the game, but in this case, Cameron and Fox have decided it is more important to get the word out.

Jim Cameron’s use of technology is groundbreaking. He’s created the most immersive 3-D experience yet, leaving preview audiences around the world wanting more,” said Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson, who intro’d the “Avatar” clip at the Bridge Imax screening in West L.A. on Friday.

It was an experience that rival studios wanted to check out as well, considering “Avatar” is Cameron’s first film since 1997’s “Titanic.” Attending one of the shows Friday at the Bridge were Paramount co-chair Rob Moore and Marvel’s Kevin Feige.

There are roughly 1,700 3-D locations domestically, including Imax. That’s well short of the 2,500 locations Fox would like to be in place before “Avatar” bows. There are north of 2,100 3-D playdates overseas.

“Avatar,” like other 3-D movies, also will be released in 2-D on conventional screens.

Many theater owners remain reluctant to spend the money to convert conventional screens to 3-D. But if the demand is there, exhibs will have incentive to convert.

The upcharge of a 3-D ticket can dramatically boost a film’s box office revenues. Rarely are studios and exhibs able to create an added stream of revenue.

Fox’s 3-D toon “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” has grossed $615 million at the international B.O., the most of any film this year and surpassing “Titanic” in a handful of Latin American markets. On “Ice Age 3’s” opening weekend, the 3-D screens repped only 18% of the total theater count, but made up more than 35% of the gross, at least.

In the months prior to the release of “Monsters vs. Aliens,” DreamWorks Animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg became a 3-D ambassador, urging exhibitors around the world to take the plunge and go 3-D.

Fox and Cameron decided to go a different route and use “Avatar” itself to do the talking. Nearly all the 3-D films up until now have been animated or motion-capture, making “Avatar” distinct.

The public screenings capped a busy travel schedule for “Avatar” filmmakers. Cameron and Fox first showed clips of the movie to international exhibitors gathered in Amsterdam for CinemaExpo. They repeated the event for U.S. exhibs in July, just before they went to Comic-Con.

Click here to watch the ‘Avatar’ movie trailer

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