3D pics face holiday screen crunch

Six releases push capacity to the limit

3D ‘Nutcracker’ enters crowded field

The 3D format has come a long way over the past year. But has it come far enough to meet the holiday crunch, which will see six 3D pics unspool over a six-week stretch, with two going head to head in wide release on the same weekend?

Consider the numbers: From November 2009 to the end of this year, Hollywood unspooled 25 3D titles, almost doubling the volume of the same period in 2008-2009. Total domestic 3D screens rose from 3,349 to 7,441 as of Oct. 25, a 122% hike in just one year. And given the increased number of 3D releases and screens — as well as higher ticket prices — an impressive year-to-year jump in 3D box office is likely.

But while 3D has made giant strides in a relatively short span, the 3D holiday crunch — which will see wide releases of “Tron: Legacy” and “Yogi Bear” on the same weekend — a 3D first — sandwiched between four other 3D titles — will test whether the format has come far enough.

Like most issues with various moving parts, the verdict on whether there are enough 3D screens is variable, depending on who you ask. Some distributors say the current 3D screen count will be enough to support the rush of yearend 3D product. Most exhibitors, on the other hand, say it’ll be a tight fit, and will squeeze one or more films.

Both camps, however, agree that demand for 3D screenings will hinge on whether audiences prefer the format over traditional 2D and are willing to wait for the format when 3D screenings sell out.

“It’s really going to depend on audience demand,” says a National Assn. of Theater Owners rep. “If you have several films holding well with new ones coming out, exhibitors will have tough decisions to make about what screens to hold and what films to give up.”

Audience tastes also follow specific genres. It’s expected that 3D animated fare and 20th Century Fox’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” will fare better with overseas moviegoers than with U.S. auds, while 3D fanboy pics like “Tron: Legacy” will hold well worldwide.

Any strain on domestic 3D screens is also likely to be lessened somewhat by the 3D boom overseas. Pics won’t have to saturate domestically as long as the international aud — and the proliferation of 3D screens abroad — are there to pick up the slack. The international 3D screen count has nearly quadrupled over the past year to 12,259 3D screens, according to NATO. That makes a worldwide screen count of 19,700 vs. some 6,700 screens in 2009.

Because the international marketplace has a greater number of 3D screens, it has enjoyed a smoother 3D transition period. Studios stagger release dates mainly because of market competition and timing of local holidays, which increases spacing between 3D pics and lessens the strain on 3D screens.

Bizzers were already looking ahead to the 2010 holiday crunch last year, with 3D awareness boosted by 2009 holiday tentpoles “A Christmas Carol” and “Avatar.” Disney and Fox, respectively, had hoped for 3,000 3D locations by the time those pics opened, but they had to settle for slightly more than 2,000.

The fact that distribs have considerably more 3D runs available this year is good news for Disney and Fox, as both studios have two horses in the running. But they’ll face tougher competition for that larger pool of screens.

Travis Reid, former head of Digital Cinema Implementation Partners (DCIP), says that depending on playability of November 3D offerings like Paramount-DreamWorks Animation’s “Megamind” or Disney’s “Tangled,” some multiplexes won’t be able to play all four of the December studio pics: “Dawn Treader,” “Yogi Bear,” “Tron” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” Indie Freestyle Releasing’s “Nutcracker in 3D” is also in the mix starting Nov. 24 via a platform release.

“Certainly there’s been a significant increase in 3D screens and locations over the past year, and a lot of exhibitors were focused on this period coming up,” says Reid, who notes that even if a crunch comes into play, there’s still an upside comparatively: “Whatever films get the least 3D runs will still have more penetration then they would have had a year and a half ago.”

Reid, who recently took up residence as CEO of Screenvision, was instrumental, in 2007, when DCIP was working to secure financing for digital conversion, a prerequisite for 3D. Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, repping theater chains AMC, Cinemark and Regal, declared last year that the group would roll out 14,000 digital screens over the next three years; more than 4,000 have been completed so far. Regal just upped its goal to convert 40% of all its screens to 3D by 2011.

The rush for more 3D screens came at a time when exhibs were struggling to pay for them. The funding from DCIP via JP Morgan and Blackstone Advisory Partners came through in March, with $660 million secured toward easing the 3D screen deficit.

But even with money in hand and an expedited installation rate — which now tallies some 500 additional screens each month — some studio execs fretted that there wouldn’t be time enough to install the necessary amount of screens before this season’s year-end rush of 3D films.

Warner Bros. lightened the load when it opted to forego releasing a 3D version of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” a decision that earned the studio cred with Potter fans as well as positive notes in the media.

“There would have been significant angst among exhibitors if the film (were done in 3D and) was holding well,” a distrib exec says of the Potter pic, which rolled out Nov. 19 in 2D, including a record-setting 356 day-and-date Imax runs worldwide.

As a four-quadrant pic, “Harry Potter” was expected to have played strong in the 3D market, threatening Disney’s “Tangled,” which is set for release the following week, on Nov. 24.

With “Hallows” out of the 3D mix, “Tangled” is first up in the crop of year-end holiday 3D releases.

Disney prexy of global distribution Chuck Viane says he expects the toon to open on some 2,000 3D screens, but that tally could be higher, given “Harry Potter’s” 3D abstention and a four-week gap between “Tangled” and “Megamind,” which bowed on Nov. 5. “Megamind,” given its solid opening and family-friendly vibe, could continue to play well through Thanksgiving weekend, with a domestic cume just north of $90 million.

Viane says the market ultimately will manage the influx of 3D titles during the holiday stretch, though he admits that one of the biggest concerns is not whether there are enough 3D screens but whether there are enough multiplexes with multiple 3D screens.

“What I have yet to see is the breadth of locations that have four screens so that everybody can be properly handled,” Viane says. “If you’re a buyer, you’re going to heavy up on a film that you believe is the biggest of all of them.”

Exhibitors aren’t willing to jeopardize studio relations by cherrypicking only the films they feel will overperform — at least not at first.

If a theater has, say, three 3D screens, then most exhibs likely will show that many pics until the market dictates making a choice of which films to keep.

“If the public needs the immediacy of seeing the movie right then, they have the option to see it in 2D or wait until the next 3D showing,” Viane notes. But he says overflow likely won’t be a major issue, as blockbusters typically play at only 60% capacity.

Also, larger markets such as New York and Los Angeles, which contribute the biggest B.O. hauls, house the most theaters able to sustain multiple 3D pics. Outlying areas that don’t have as many 3D screens make up smaller portions of overall box office, and they have access to fewer films.

Though some markets may be underseated for 3D screenings, Viane says the holiday sesh likely won’t differ that much from 2D competish during other prime B.O. timeslots. This year’s summer sesh had 37 wide 2D releases, with an added seven 3D titles entering the marketplace between May 7 and Labor Day weekend.

Apart from screen count, the quality of 3D screeens and the viewing experience could impact each film’s perf over the long haul. As one exhib puts it, “You can have enough screens, but someone’s going to get hosed on the quality.”

Something as simple as a dull bulb can significantly diminish the 3D experience. Screen sizes also factor into the equation, and seat inventory can depend on how a theater is arranged. With the number of available 3D screens potentially stretched to accommodate the holiday influx, some pics are likely to cycle around a given multiplex, rotating from larger screens to smaller ones depending on demand.

Exhibs’ 3D shuffle also will be dictated by market preferences, Viane says. “There are some theaters where ‘Tron’ makes all the sense in the world, and then others that play better with family movies,” he says.

There are plenty of open questions. But the answers won’t come into focus until the holiday span is played out.

“The marketplace is the sole determiner in what we get out of it,” Viane says.

And while adherents are quick to defend the 3D format and naysayers continue to voice skepticism about its longterm viability, both sides typically wind up saying the same thing about the quest for a more definitive prognosis:

“Give it another six months.”

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