Last year, the country's top three movies were all 3D

Stereoscopic 3D cinema is proving a gamechanger in Spain.

After grossing a stratospheric $100 million B.O., “Avatar” marked a tipping point for the exhibitors’ resistance to digital conversion, leading to Spanish digital screen numbers skyrocketing 400% in 2009.

By March, there were already more than 325 digital screens in Spain; 265 were 3D. Forecasts say Spain will have 500 digital screens by year-end, 350 in 3D.

Last year, the country’s top three movies at the B.O. were all 3D, powering an overall 9% B.O. growth. And 3D fever continues: “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened April 16, bested “Avatar” as the best 3D opening ever in Spain ($10.3 million).

Measured by the number of 3D screens, Spain ranks sixth in Europe, behind France, U.K., Germany, Russia and Italy, says Screen Digest’ s Charlotte Jones.

Germany and Spain will lead Western Europe’s S3D theater conversion in 2010, predicts Jean Mizrahi, founder of digital facilitator Ymagis. One reason is Spain’s growth potential given its low 8% digital penetration in theaters.

“This year, almost all new digital installations will be for 3D screens; 2011 will be the year of full digital deployments,” forecasts Tomas Naranjo, general manager at exhibition services company Kelonik.

Beyond a current lack of projection equipment, Spain’s main 3D growth problem is financing.

Local circuits have already invested more than $43.2 million in digitization, says exhibitor lobby FECE.

For the moment, at least, most Spanish exhibitors are paying digitization costs out of their own pocket.

Spain’s top local loop Yelmo Cines converted 39 of its 400 screens to 3D by teaming with London-based deployer Arts Alliance. Project was directly financed by Yelmo, without involving VPFs, says Yelmo CEO Fernando Evole.

“We are digitizing exclusively with own finance,” says Francisco Garcia, managing director at Barcelona-based circuit ACEC, which has converted 36 of 349 screens.

Given the pace of the 3D box office, “recoupment on digital theater investments could be quite fast,” says Pablo Nogueroles, managing director, Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. Spain.

Europe’s biggest circuits, Odeon-Cinesa-UCI and UGC, have announced plans to make over their Spanish theaters.

Terra Firma-owned Odeon, which operates 383 Spanish screens, is upgrading its entire network through inhouse company Digital Deployment Associates.

France’s UGC inked in February with Ymagis to facilitate UGC digital conversion of all its 605 screens, including 88 in Spain. Agreement sees Ymagis acting as a third-party investor and third-party VPF collector.

“VPF deals are complex and negotiations are drawn-out,” says Evole, who predicts first VPF deals for Spanish exhibitors by the year’s end.

Ymagis is finalizing VPF agreements with some Spanish cinema loops, Mizrahi reports.

A big question is how Spanish indie distributors will access digital screens under VPF deals with the studios.

Currently, a few 3D indies are inking pic-by-pic deals, with distributors paying extra fees to exhibitors for digital prints, and, in some cases, also a small fee for the 3D glasses.

“The ‘Avatar’ effect caused a bottleneck in Spain’s 3D theaters, making it more difficult to release indie films,” says Ignacio Puebla, who’s partnered with international tech company Xpand to handle 3D pics in Spain via SolotresD. SolotresD’s first release, animated “Garfield’s Pet Force 3D,” has been delayed to June 11.

“The 3D boom hit independent production about six months ago,” says Jorge Vazquez, general manager at Spain’s top indie distributor Aurum Producciones, which plans to release two 3D films a year. Its first 3D pic, musical “StreetDance 3D,” bows this month; later, the James Cameron-produced drama “Sanctum.”

With nearly all of Spain’s 3D theaters dominated by the studios’ big titles, 3D indie distributors and producers have had to revamp initial release plans according to the international agenda.

Handled by Filmax Entertainment, Jordi Llompart’s fantasy tale “Magic Journey to Africa,” opened in May after delaying the release date. Dygra’s 3D animated Christmas farce “Holy Night!” will launch in December, a year later than previously announced.

Initially skedded for a July 23 theatrical release, Fernando Cortizo’s 3D stop-motion pic “O Apostolo” has moved to August-September, avoiding “Toy Story 3.”

” ‘Avatar’ has refined film audiences’ tastes, raising the bar for 3D film production,” says Morena Films producer Alvaro Longoria.

“Spanish production companies, not only toon houses, are enthusiastically encouraging 3D training,” says “O Apostolo” producer Isabel Rey at Artefacto Producciones.

Locals Get On Board

3D projects are sprouting like mushrooms in Spain. Here is a selection:

• Alex Colls’s animated pic “La tropa de trapo,” produced by Galicia’s Continental and Abano, and Catalonia’s Anera. Alta Films release bows in the fall.

• Bigas Luna is developing apocalypse drama “Segundo Origen,” adapting Manuel de Pedrolo’s novel, produced by Antartida Prods.

• Miguel Bardem is prepping a 3D adaptation of comicbook “Mortadelo & Filemon,” the third part of a local B.O. hit saga that Warner Bros. will release in December 2011.

• Kandor Moon, Antonio Banderas’ joint-production venture, has attached Emmy-winner Erik Jendresen (“Band of Brothers”) as the screenwriter of animated movie “Goleor, the Scale and the Sword.” The $29.7 million epic adventure will be delivered by 2012.

• Madrid-based Illion Animation Studios aims to produce a yet-to-be-titled 3D toon project for 2012. Like Illion’s first pic, alien comedy “Planet 51,” which grossed $110 million worldwide, new toon feature targets international auds.

• Debutant Enrique Gato is directing animated pic “Tadeo Jones 3D,” produced by Ikiru Films. It begins production in the spring.

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