CES Daily Spotlight: Variety Entertainment Summit

So far, 3D movies have been all about the box office, with premium ticket prices upping the ante. Giant robots, comicbook superheroes and ancient warriors have exploded across digital screens in depth along with a host of eye-popping horror pics thrown in for good measure. Fanboys, kids and geeks love it, but is it art? Now, with such serious-minded filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Baz Luhrmann entering the three-dimensional realm, the question becomes: Will 3D fly at the arthouse?

Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3D documentary about the world’s oldest art, was a surprise critical hit in 2011. Herzog told the L.A. Times that he used 3D “to capture the intentions of the painters” filming inside the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

Opening in five theaters in the U.S. in April, ticket sales averaged $25,500 per theater, Herzog’s all-time best opening and the highest per-theater domestic average for the weekend. After two months in release, “Cave” had grossed $3.7 million, to become the highest grossing indie doc of 2011. It also appeared on several critics’ year-end lists of best films, including Roger Ebert’s at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Not many arthouses were 3D-ready at the time, so “Caves” opened in multiplexes like the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, where it had a strong eight-week run playing in 3D on the ExpanD/”active” glasses platform, which, unlike the RealD format, does not require a silver screen.

Increasingly, such multiplexes as the AMC Covina 30, where Wim Wenders’ 3D “Pina” had its Academy qualifying-run in October, are showing arthouse fare. AMC has also created its Independent program to incorporate indie fare into the multiplex. The traffic jam for 3D screens is alleviated when 17 screens in a 30-plex house like AMC are equipped for digital 3D shows.

This has put a squeeze on arthouses like Laemmle Theaters, the dominant arthouse chain in Southern California. After 20 years, Laemmle recently closed its Sunset Five location in West Hollywood and opened a new multiplex in North Hollywood, right in the heart of the NoHo arts community. None of the seven new Laemmle screens in North Hollywood are 3D-enabled.

(“Cave” played “flat” in 2D in Los Angeles at Laemmle Theaters. Laemmle also screened the Chinese box office hit “Sex and Zen” in 2D in 2011 even though it pulled in the big money in China playing in 3D.)

“We have not seen any upside benefit with 3D on a financial basis,” says Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theaters. “We’re not totally closed to it, but it would take us over a year to recoup our investment in 3D.”

On top of the $150,000 it costs to equip a theater with digital projection, 3D adds at least an additional $50,000-$75,000 for server and silver-screen add-ons. The Landmark chain, Laemmle Theater’s big competitor in arthouse fare in Los Angeles, is not equipped for 3D. By the end of 2011, more than 50,000 cinemas worldwide were equipped with digital cinema projectors (twice as many as 2010) and 55% of those were 3D-enabled.

Laemmle also objects to the premium ticket pricing for 3D. At multiplexes like AMC and Arclight, a 3D ticket costs an additional $4. Premium pricing is a big incentive for the chains to play 3D, whether it’s James Cameron’s “Titanic in 3D,” scheduled for early 2012, or an arthouse 3D doc like “Pina,” scheduled for a January release after an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S., and the official Academy submission from Germany in the foreign-language category.

In a keynote address after a screening of “Pina” in 3D at a conference in Toronto, Wenders noted that he was inspired to use 3D to film the innovative dance theater of Pina Bausch after viewing “U2 3D” in 2007.

Writer-director Philippe Mora — who is making a 3D film about Salvador Dali — was in the audience. “Everybody at the conference was asking why 3D has not been used as an adult medium in Hollywood,” Mora says.

In explaining why he embraced the format with “Hugo,” Scorsese told the Intl. 3D Society, “3D takes movies into the future by looking back to the origin of cinema. The process also enhances the emotion and the drama.”

Luhrmann says his decision to film “The Great Gatsby” — a book filmmakers have found a tough nut to crack mostly due to their reluctance to mess with a cherished literary classic — in 3D, is because the format will give the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel the depth of a stage play.

Wenders believes 3D, used strictly for fantasy, “got out of bed on the wrong foot in Hollywood.” In time, he declares, “it will become the very language of future reality-based movies and documentaries, as well as fictional films. 3D has a totally unexplored affinity to reality.”

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