Spain sees 3-D as admissions savior

U.S. films, local productions employ technology

Ravaged by piracy and the fickleness of young audiences distracted by other leisure alternatives, theater admissions in Spain fell 25% between 2004 and 2008. With the market in desperate need of a boost, many analysts are looking to 3-D.

Having bowed April 3, “Monsters vs. Aliens” became Spain’s biggest 3-D opener to date. The DreamWorks release pulled in $4.5 million, with 3-D fare accounting for 38% of the total B.O. in Spain ($11.8 million) through April 26.

More than a dozen titles will open in Spain this year in the digital 3-D format, including “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Up,” “G-Force,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Avatar” — all from the U.S.

Exhibitors appreciate 3-D films’ competitive advantages: a technological buffer against illegal downloads and a filmgoing  experience that still cannot be enjoyed at home.

“3-D can attract new audience influx and frequency, but it’s an incremental business, not a substitute for 2-D,” warns Fernando Evole, CEO of exhibitor Yelmo Cines.

If not a panacea for Spain’s troubled exhibition-distribution market, 3-D could reinforce the notion of cinema as big entertainment.

“It will help maintain a clear and distinctive attraction to enjoying movies in theaters, which (has been) somewhat diluted,” says Hispano Foxfilms managing director Miguel Lustau.

Spain’s 3-D screen count is already rising fast. From November to April, the number of 3-D screens mushroomed from 22 to 85. Screen Digest estimates a total 127 digital 3-D screens by the end of the year and more than 265 by the end of 2012, which would constitute more than 6% of the total screens in the country.

“Until January, Spanish exhibitors were reluctant about how to cover the investment,” says Barcelona-based filmmaker Jordi Llompart. “Once convinced that 3-D works, they’ve put their pedal to the metal.”

However, Spanish exhibition faces obstacles for digital 3-D development.

Digitalization, an obligatory step to introduce 3-D in theaters, comes in tough times. Exhibitor lobby Fece estimates the costs of digitalization at north of $1.3 billion. And conversion is far from being completed.

But bigger circuits are betting energetically on digital 3-D growth.

Exhibition giant Cinesa-Odeon-UCI announced in March that 32 of its 375 screens in Spain will incorporate 3-D. Yelmo Cines will boast 23 digital 3-D screens among its 351 total.

Spanish producers have begun to react to the predictable torrent of big international 3-D film releases. Llompart’s $13.3 million children’s adventure “Magic Journey to Africa” was made for 3-D and large-format screens. Produced by Orbita Max, Catalonia’s TV3 and Apuntolapospo, it toplines Leonor Watling (“The Oxford Murders”).

Llompart sees 3-D as the next logical step for him after filming his doc “Mystery of the Nile” in the Imax format, partnering with California’s MacGillivray Freeman Films. “Nile” took $42 million worldwide since bowing in 2005.

Eighty percent of Orbita’s expected returns from “Magic Journey” will come from digital 3-D, and 20% from the Imax platform.

For stereoscopic imaging supervisor Enrique Criado, who’s working on upcoming 3-D films “Regina Verbum” and “Soulless,” 3-D enhances film narrative. “Any type of film can work in digital 3-D, because we aren’t aiming at flashy effects but rather hyper-realistic films,” he says.

3-D costs can increase a film’s budget 10% to 30%, says Criado, which can be prohibitive for some Spanish producers.

Kandor Moon, Antonio Banderas’ joint production venture, has $20 million 3-D animated movie “Goleor, the Spade and the Sword,” a futuristic medieval fantasy, directed by Manuel Sicilia. BRB Intl. has announced a full-length 3-D film based on the TV series “Bernard,” skedded for summer 2012 release.

With few digital 3-D screens, one challenge for Spanish producers will be to access screen space when their 3-D pics compete with big studio releases.

As international film productions dominate the new 3-D market, Spanish films’ already low domestic market quota risks falling even further.

Says Llompart: “Spanish producers must make more spectacular films to win a space in the cinema of the future.”