[5 February 2009]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
Moviegoers, adjust your eyeglasses for what Hollywood gamblers bet is the next revolution in film: digital 3-D.
Not the cumbersome, headache-inducing gimmickry behind 1950s movie novelties like “Bwana Devil” and “House of Wax.” It’s the nanotechnology giving filmmakers James Cameron and John Lasseter the means to dissolve the screen separating the viewer from the movie experience. Some Wall Street analysts say that within the next two years, 3-D could boost movie revenue 10 percent - if there are enough digital 3-D theaters to accommodate the volume of product.
“This is not your father’s 3-D,” declares Jeffrey Katzenberg, producer of the animated feature “Monsters vs. Aliens” and evangelist of the format promising to change how spectators will watch movies, sports and music concerts.
After the 3-D commercial triumphs of 2008 - among them the “Hannah Montana” concert film, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Bolt” - Hollywood is readying more than a dozen 3-D titles for release in 2009, not all kiddie fare.
The new movies include “My Bloody Valentine,” the R-rated slasher currently in theaters; “Coraline,” the surreal stop-motion animation (out Friday); “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a broad comedy (March 27); and “Avatar,” Cameron’s space odyssey (Dec. 18), his first fiction film since “Titanic” (1997).
“3-D is the LSD of 2009,” enthuses entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and of the Landmark Theatre chain and a stakeholder in Carmike, another circuit investing heavily in 3-D upgrades. Cuban, who last year saw an NBA game projected in 3-D, says the experience was “mind-altering.”
Even those without a financial stake in the outcome rave about digital 3-D. “Love it!” says Ralph Hirshorn, insurer to the film industry and a movie addict with a home theater bigger than some multiplex auditoriums. “It completely enhances the experience.”
For Hirshorn, in a prior career an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, “1950s 3-D was hokey as a kid’s pop-up book, objects thrusting at you from the screen.” Sounding like Alice at the looking glass, he describes his experience at “Bolt”: “This new 3-D pulls you through the screen and into the scene.”
That’s music to the ears of Jon Landau, producer of “Titanic” and the coming “Avatar.” Speaking for himself and Cameron, Landau said, “Our goal isn’t about gags coming off the screen; it’s about making the screen disappear and bringing the audience inside the story.”
While stereoscopic movies date back to the 1890s, they didn’t achieve widespread popularity until the 1950s, when studios touted new technologies, among them CinemaScope, VistaVision and stereophonic sound - to lure viewers from their new televisions back into moviehouses.
Both for shooting the film and projecting it, midcentury 3-D technology was unwieldy. It required two heavy, synchronized, side-by-side film cameras (left eye and right, as it were) to shoot the action, two side-by-side projectors to show the films. Synchronization of the images was tricky, kind of like driving two cars next to each other at the identical speed. Which is why viewers in the audience frequently got headaches from the experience.
Explains Phil McNally, global stereoscopic supervisor at DreamWorks animation (known to his colleagues as “Captain 3-D”): “Digital technology has made possible the new generation of the process. Today, we shoot with a stereo-camera system that is a fraction of the weight of a single old movie camera.
“And we project with a single digital projector that synchronizes and perfectly aligns the two image streams so the brain reads them as 3-D. Fundamentally, 3-D happens in the brain.” Moviegoers wear polarized glasses that overlay the images, creating the illusion of depth.
Both for its artistic and commercial potential, Katzenberg touts 3-D as “the third major revolution in moviemaking” after sound and color. His “a-ha moment” was “Polar Express.” Much as he loved the 3-D effects, it didn’t hurt that theaters showing the 3-D IMAX version made on average 12 times what theaters playing the conventional version made. Already, some Hollywood producers are eyeing 3-D as if it were an 18-year-old blond bombshell: the sure thing to lure couch potatoes back into theaters.
“3-D films greatly outgross their 2-D digital versions,” says Wanda Whitson, spokeswoman for National Amusements. Last week, Wall Street analysts Piper Jaffray released a report predicting that by 2011, revenue from 3-D films, typically priced two to five dollars more than conventional movies, would boost the box office as much as 12 percent. Which is why there’s a rush to upgrade theaters for 3-D, as has AMC.
“The big thing for us is that digital cinema - which includes 3-D - opens up programming content,” says AMC spokesman Justin Scott. “It allows us to show closed-circuit events such as the Metropolitan Opera simulcast, sporting events and concerts. It makes the multiplex truly multi.”
The industry likes digital because the studio doesn’t have to pay the money to strike and ship prints, and the digital versions are piracy-protected.
Yet the 3-D party has its poopers. There are not enough 3-D-upgraded screens to accommodate the movies in the pipeline, say some. Others ask: If the new 3-D is available for home screens, why is everyone predicting it will be a boon for theater exhibition? Skeptics shrug that 3-D can’t improve a mediocre product. The poopers have excellent arguments, which the advocates are all too happy to debate.
No, there aren’t enough 3-D screens, but there are plans to make more. According to Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theater Owners, only 1,700 of the 38,000 movie screens in the nation, roughly 4 percent, are 3-D-ready. Because credit markets are frozen, exhibitors can’t borrow for upgrades. One proposed solution, says Corcoran, is that the estimated $1 billion saved yearly in printing and shipping costs may be loaned to or shared with movie exhibitors to make their theaters 3-D-ready.
Yes, the new 3-D technology will be available for home theaters. But, insists Landmark Theatre’s Cuban in an e-mail: “You can’t replicate the quality or size of the 3-D experience at home.” Hirshorn, who has his own home theater, absolutely agrees.
No one disagrees that 3-D is only a technology. But filmmakers like Cameron, who wrote “Avatar” 14 years ago, “waited until the technology was available for him to realize his planet Pandora,” says producer Landau.
“Throughout the history of cinema, technology has enabled artists to tell stories that otherwise could not be told,” Landau reflects. “‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ‘Mary Poppins.’ ‘Star Wars.’ ‘E.T.’”
So, no, he says, 3-D isn’t going to make a mediocre movie better. The implication being that 3-D could make a great movie a classic.