Hollywood rediscovers 3-D technology

Form is given a polish with big-ticket releases

It’s not your parents’ 3-D, but whether the once-gimmicky technology is the movie industry’s new savior remains to be seen.

One proponent is no less than Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation will produce solely in 3-D starting in 2009, when the company’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” will give filmgoers an expensive sample of the new technology.

The key speaker at Tuesday’s ShowEast breakfast seminar, “The Future of 3D in the Digital Age,” Katzenberg sees the rebirth of 3-D as an industrywide revolution.

“Exhibitors are offered the opportunity to present moviegoers with a premium experience and pricing to match,” he tells Variety.

One thing is sure: The rapid growth of the reborn medium is undeniable, making it chief among many studios’ and exhibitors’ hopes for increased revenue, not to mention a way to kick up one of America’s favorite pastimes a few notches.

Considered a short-lived fad in the Eisenhower era, the early stages of 3-D involved projecting two film strips simultaneously, leading to insurmountable synchronization problems. Later systems were single-strip, but by that time interest had waned and, with few exceptions, the product had come to be associated with low-budget schlock and was even appropriated by purveyors of pornography.

Today, however, with such big-ticket 3-D releases as New Line’s “Journey 3-D” and James Cameron’s “Avatar” on the horizon, the theater chain Regal Cinemas, the largest in the U.S. with more than 6,400 screens, has equipped itself with 109 RealD units and is adding 25 more within the next two months for Paramount’s November release, “Beowulf.”

“This time you have major studios, producers and directors making big-budget (3-D) films with A-list actors and great production values no different than in 2-D films,” says Regal CEO Mike Campbell.

Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting, who leads the Monday discussion “Digital Cinema, Implementation Changes,” sees hopeful signs in the redesigned medium. “All the systems are comparable in price and function on the same core technology,” Karagosian says, “but there are trade-offs.”

Those trade-offs are where the three companies producing the new systems — RealD, Dolby and NuVision — enter the picture. Using a process called “circular polarization,” which reduces image ghosting, RealD requires an expensive silver screen but offers disposable “passive” polarized glasses. Both Dolby and NuVision use a normal matte screen, but the reusable glasses are a major cost for exhibitors, who must maintain, wash and redistribute them.

With Dolby, the glasses use a spectrum separation technology that places sets of different primary colors before each eye. NuVision uses a complex technology, Shutter Glasses, which are battery-powered, computer-synchronized optics containing a shutter mechanism within each lens, presenting potential battery or other failure. So far, RealD is ahead with exhibitors, the only issue being the disposability/environmental-waste factor of the glasses.

Because the manufacturers installs each system, issues of standardization are largely sidestepped, Karagosian says. Still, exhibitors must pay for the upgrade and maintenance plans.

Campbell points out that it is not the 3-D components but the initial installation of the digital platform and projectors that is high cost. To allay this, Regal, alongside AMC and Cinemark, is partnered in DCIP, the Digital Cinema Implementation Partnership. “Essentially, the studios are paying for the initial rollout of digital projectors through their willingness to make what we call a ‘virtual print fee,’ in lieu of their having to invest in a hard print.”

Smaller chains share Campbell’s willingness to take a risk on the new technology. Chris Johnson, VP of Classic Cinemas, says his company plans to have at least one 3-D screen in each of its 12 Chicago-based theaters.

“It’s amazing, the difference of the 3-D performance of a film that is also shown next door in 2-D,” Johnson says. At Classic, two 3-D showings of “Meet the Robinsons” grossed more than $101,000 during its run, while a single 2-D “Robinsons” screening in the same multiplex grossed approximately $21,000 for the same period.

Some of this 2-D gross resulted from overflow from sold-out 3-D shows, making “Robinsons” the third-highest-grossing picture of the year for that multiplex. In another multiplex with the same demographic where “Robinsons” was shown solely in 2-D, the film ranked 14th for the year. Still, Johnson says, without at least five 3-D releases annually, 3-D does not make long-term sense in alleviating annual licensing fees from 3-D manufacturers.

No complaints

None of the exhibitors report audience complaints about the glasses, nor was preferred seating an issue. Lisa Samford, executive director of the Jacksonhole (Wyo.) Wildlife Film Festival, says in regard to the festival’s screening of National Geographic’s “Sea Monsters in RealD”: “I’m not a tech head and I don’t have a horse in this race, but I walked around the theater during a screening, and every view was excellent.”

Another issue revolves around whether there are enough equipped screens in the country to make 3-D productions a feasible alternative for filmmakers.

Michael Lewis, co-founder, chairman and CEO of RealD, points out that his company rose from licensing one screen 18 months ago to a current total of more than 1,000 screens, with 5,000 as a goal by 2009.

Whether 3-D is here to stay or again passes as a fad is largely dependent on the creativity of filmmakers, who must create content that helps audiences rethink their opinions of the medium. Vince Pace, longtime Cameron 3-D cinematographer, says cinematic language must adjust to the reborn medium’s demands to gain filmgoers’ acceptance.

“I shoot for overall realism,” he says, “and not gimmicky effects best experienced by a viewer in a center seat.”