Majors exploring idea of reviving classic pics

The $59.3 million bow of DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” was hailed by exhibitors and distributors alike as a breakthrough in the burgeoning 3-D biz. But even though the 3-D renaissance is still nascent, Hollywood is already planning the next step: throwing open its vaults.

As they prep dozens of new 3-D films, the majors have been quietly exploring the idea of converting some of their most valuable library titles to the new technology. Tests for “dimensionalization” have been done on a number of hits, including Paramount’s “Transformers,” Paramount/Fox’s “Titanic” and Warner’s “The Matrix.”

Those explorations are gaining new urgency as the format builds excitement among viewers and exhibitors. Hollywood is always looking for the Next Big Thing to fuel coffers. And there is reason for optimism in the new format, but there are also reasons for caution.

Disney, the studio leader in 3-D, is showing the rest of the industry the way. At exhib confab ShoWest in Vegas, last week, Disney and Pixar elaborated on plans for bringing the two “Toy Story” pics, as well as “Beauty and the Beast,” to the format.

The Mouse House has already converted one of its animated titles, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and re-released it twice. Mark Zoradi, prexy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group, says, “We knew from that there was a commercial marketplace for it, because we released it in 3-D 13 or 14 years after the original release and it was successful every time.”

The 2006 holiday run grossed $8.7 million in 168 theaters. After an additional run on 564 screens in 2007, the 3-D cume is $24.2 million — impressive compared with the $50.4 million for its original 1993 release in 2-D.

Those numbers are encouraging, because the number of 3-D screens in the U.S. has ballooned since then.

But there are also reasons to temper the enthusiasm. The “Nightmare” box office was no doubt fueled by the novelty factor. But when audiences have 10 or 15 such movies a year — the respective estimates for ’09 and next year — will they pay to see something that’s been on DVD for years? (And the Disney brand contains a power that can’t necessarily be copied by other studios.)

The conversion process can cost around $15 million for a long-ish actioner (about what Jeffrey Katzenberg says it cost DreamWorks to make “Monsters vs. Aliens” a 3-D release), and the transformation typically takes 10 to 14 months. The director is involved at the beginning and the end of the process, but need not be present for most of it.

The conversion is extremely complicated for any film, but costs more for a tentpole, where there can be extensive visual effects and images featuring many people and objects. It can run $100,000 per minute for the most difficult shots — but if a perfectionist director decides to tinker or re-edit, costs go up from there.

One factor holding back these legacy titles: The slow pace of the 3-D rollout in cinemas. Since 3-D would drive these re-releases, there would need to be enough screens for a wide release. There are 39,000 screens in the U.S., of which only 2,000 are equipped for 3-D — a number distribs say would need to at least triple.

The move into 3-D has long-term implications for home viewing. So far, nobody has come up with an effective home-use system for the format, but execs at all the conglomerates are hoping this could be the tech revolution that could keep their cash registers ringing for years to come. When DVDs debuted, congloms raked in billions as consumers updated their home library with new hardware and software. The hope was that BluRay would accomplish the same thing, but many film fans have bypassed that technology as they get into Internet streaming.

But 3-D could make home audiences sit up and take notice. The idea of seeing old favorites come to life could encourage buyers to get new hardware and new disks. And because 3-D streaming will take more bandwidth than 2-D — and thus, theoretically, be less convenient for consumers to use — it’s less likely to cannibalize BluRay sales. Studios could get buyers to embrace both new technologies.

But those ideas are down the road, and the immediate goal is to make the 3-D investment profitable from its bigscreen run.

Jon Landau, who produced “Titanic” with James Cameron, emphasizes that “there are no firm plans” for the film to go 3-D. But he says, “The way we look at anything, whatever your first entree is into something, it has to make business sense itself.” In the absence of homevideo, that means the theatrical re-release has to be profitable.

Landau is producing Cameron’s 3-D “Avatar.” He’s shown some of the “Titanic” 3-D test footage publicly, and Cameron has had several tests done over the last few years.

George Lucas, too, has commissioned “Star Wars” tests without moving ahead, but he has declared his support for “dimensionalization” (a term coined and trademarked by Thousand Oaks-based In-Three).

Lucas told an exhibitor confab at ShoWest 2005 that he would re-release the “Star Wars” saga in 3-D — though Lucasfilm wants more 3-D screens available before the company even begins working on it.

A “Titanic 3-D” or “Star Wars” saga may have even greater B.O. potential than most of the industry realizes. Those pics are exactly the kind of event movie considered ideal for 3-D. Hard numbers show that 3-D screens have overperformed on “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “My Bloody Valentine,” “Coraline” and now “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

Mavens of 3-D have raved that actors “pop” even more in “stereo.” Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, for example, look better than ever in the test footage — good enough to make Leo a teen idol all over again.

Most of the industry hasn’t addressed the topic of 3-D conversions in public, but that hasn’t stopped rumors from flying. One website shows the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in line for conversion, but New Line insists the company has no current plans for it. Paramount, which would be involved in any “Transformers” or “Titanic” re-release, declined to comment on the possibility.

Moreover, as long as there are so few 3-D screens available, one studio 3-D release would bump out another, as happened with “Coraline,” when the Jonas Brothers concert film bowed. Some have speculated that a magic number is 9,000 3-D screens, enough to support two wide releases in 3-D simultaneously. That is probably a couple of years away.

Should Disney do big box office on theatrical re-releases of “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” though, it would be hard to deny the potential of 3-D library titles, even with the current shortage of screens.

Even Disney will be watching those results before it decides what to do with the rest of its library.

“We’ll make an informed business decision once we have data,” Zoradi says. “Right now we have our instincts, and our instincts are all very positive toward it. We had good data from ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ and that led us to do what we’re doing now.”

The lure of 3-D conversion isn’t limited to library titles. ReelFX, the visual effects house with offices in Texas and Santa Monica, says it’s fielding many inquiries about converting both upcoming and new releases to 3-D. So studios that passed on 3-D the first time are seeing a chance to get in on the 3-D action after all.

Once it catches on, the stereo treatment need not be reserved for actioners and sci-fi.

At 3-D conversion company In-Three, guests and potential clients get to view a number of tests, including those “Titanic” and “Star Wars” clips. But one of their best is a little test they did inhouse, without a studio request: The final airport scene between Bogart and Bergman in “Casablanca.”

At a recent screening, there were no obvious 3-D effects and the picture was still in black-and-white, but somehow Bogart and Bergman looked sexier than ever. They were beautiful before, but in 3-D, you can’t take your eyes off them. It was like seeing the familiar scene for the first time — exactly as 3-D fans have been saying for a long time.

If mass audiences have the same reaction, we’ll all be “looking at you, kid,” in a whole new way.

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