3-D shows perspective

Lucas, Cameron talk up format at ShoWest

LAS VEGAS — Jedis, Hobbits and the Terminator joined the crusade for digital 3-D cinema on the closing day of ShoWest.

In two much-hyped demonstrations, heavyweight helmers George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Robert Rodriguez evangelized 3-D filmmaking and exhorted exhibs to install the digital upgrades required to play the stereoscopic attractions.

“I’m sort of the digital penny that shows up every year to say, ‘Why haven’t you got these digital theaters yet?,’ ” Lucas told confab attendees.

The presentations, sponsored by Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema, featured 3-D clips from “The Polar Express,” “The Lord of the Rings,” Cameron’s underwater doc “Aliens of the Deep,” as well as “dimensionalized” clips of older titles including the original “Star Wars,” “Top Gun” and “Titanic.”

Cameron said he plans to make all his future films in 3-D, including “Battle Angel,” which 20th Century Fox plans to release in 2007. Since the number of 3-D houses is still small, pic is expected to get a wide 2-D release.

The film biz is on the brink of “a renaissance of 3-D,” he said. “Not as a gimmick but as the way the biggest, must-see tentpole movies are going to be seen. We now have a way to get people to come out from behind those HD flat-screen TVs and into the theaters.”

With the advent of new processes to convert older films into 3-D, Lucas said he is extremely anxious to reissue his “Star Wars” films in the format. In-Three Inc. developed the tech used for the presentation.

Lucas hopes to reissue the separate installments of “Star Wars” in one-year intervals, starting in 2007, the 30th anniversary of the original pic.

“You can have all my theaters when ‘Battle Angel’ moves out,” Cameron said.

According to Lucas, it costs $5 million or less to transform a finished 2-D film such as “Star Wars” to 3-D.

The format is the latest benefit being touted to theater owners in order to persuade them to convert to digital projectors. The system demonstrated at Thursday’s event used a single Christie CP2000 projector and a standard 48-foot-wide screen. Though millions could be saved in distrib costs, digital is not yet widespread in the industry. DLP has only 68 such systems currently installed in the U.S.

Several other companies have also been touting their 3-D wares at ShoWest. Real D announced it had inked a deal with Mann Theaters to modify Grauman’s Chinese for 3-D technology using digital projection.

Imax, which has been the most vocal promoter of 3-D following the success of Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express” in the format, also kept a high profile, emphasizing that it is the first to be actually selling tickets to 3-D shows. “Polar” grossed $45 million on 84 of the company’s screens worldwide.

“Up until now, Imax is the only company that has demonstrated a profitable way to release 3-D film,” said Imax prexy Greg Foster.

Amid the hype, Foster was the quickest to argue that widespread adoption of 3-D is still a ways off. In addition to the conversion to digital cinema that his competitors would require, he notes it took Imax over a decade of trial and error to perfect its 3-D shows and solve numerous unforeseen, if mundane, hurdles such as getting the size, color and curvature of their screens right, making sure auds don’t walk out with headaches and installing a system to wash the 3-D glasses between uses.

And while interest in 3-D has been a big boon for Imax — Foster credited “Polar” with the sales of 10 new Imax screens, and the company’s stock has risen nearly 40% since the pic’s debut — the company has more modest predictions about the spread of 3-D into megaplexes.

Foster said, “3-D film is harder than people think, and it will take longer than people think.”

“Polar’s” 3-D grosses — some 35% of its worldwide take from less than 2% of its engagements — impressed studios, but the relatively high fixed costs in the Imax 3-D process has been a stumbling block.

Post-production and P&A for the Imax “Polar” cost around $12 million, and assuming a standard exhib split of 50%, Warners is looking at about a $13 million profit for the 3-D version.

Still, Imax co-chairman Richard Gelfond said, “For next year, we’ve been contacted by four studios about seven projects. So clearly they’re impressed by ‘Polar Express.’ ”

Also limiting 3-D is the number of theaters equipped to show the films.

Worldwide, there are about 140-150 Imax screens. DLP lists 314 screens that use their digital projectors, but it’s not clear how many are equipped for 3-D.

Given its limited number of screens, Imax says it can release just six titles a year to ensure that each pic has a long enough play period, since all commercial locations play the same product at the same time. “As we grow the network, there may be a time when we can have two tracks,” he said.

Rodriguez, whose 3-D titles include “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” and this summer’s “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D,” said at a screening, “We’re making this content sight unseen and hoping that the technology catches up to us.” He added, “People want to be transported (at the movies). You need a transporting experience like (3-D) to get people out of their living rooms.”

Zemeckis noted he has “two pictures in production that are going to be in 3-D,” but he did not identify them.

Lucas admitted that he abandoned plans to shoot “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” in 3-D. “It was too early in the process to meet all our dates,” he said. And when asked if the fourth “Indiana Jones” film, long in development, will be made in 3-D, he said it would be hard enough to persuade Steven Spielberg to shoot on digital video. He said the latest version of the script is due back to him in a month or so.

Appearing in a pre-taped 3-D clip, “Rings” helmer Peter Jackson said, “I’m looking forward to one day seeing Hobbits in 3-D.”

Just prior to the 3-D events, 20th Century Fox used plenty of old-fashioned showmanship and star power to tout its upcoming summer slate, albeit 2-D. It marched Darth Vader and a squadron of storm troopers through the aud before unveiling the first reel of “Revenge of the Sith.” Greeting the gathered exhibs, Vader said, “You will not find a more wretched hive of greedy, money-grabbing scoundrels” before bragging about the franchise’s box office might.

Also brought onto the impressive modernist stage were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (stars of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon (“Fever Pitch”), the cast of “Fantastic Four” and “Kingdom of Heaven” helmer Ridley Scott.

“These are big-ass theatrical spectacles,” said chairman Tom Rothman.