3-D gives new dimension to moviegoing experience

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Screen story: With $7.1 million of Disney's "Meet the Robinsons" $25.1 million opening coming from its digital 3-D release, it's clear that new technology can make a big difference at the boxoffice.

Indeed, 3-D has turned into a very meaningful contributor to the moviegoing experience. The added dimension of visual enjoyment from 3-D is a big plus that helps counter some of the negative factors like sticky theater floors, midmovie cell phone conversations, preshow commercials and overpriced concessions that have been problems for exhibitors in recent years.

Clearly, you can't experience with your home theater's 50 inch plasma screen anything remotely like the impact that a movie delivers in digital 3-D. Although much has been written about how Hollywood's survival may hinge on new small screens like mobile phones, iPods and computers, the industry may actually benefit more from the growth of the big screen theatrical 3-D format because it preserves the communal nature and shared experiences of moviegoing.

In the case of "Robinsons," its Disney Digital 3-D release on 581 screens generated the largest such opening ever. While 3-D accounted for just 13% of the film's screens, it represented 28% of the opening weekend's ticket sales. For Disney it's the latest 3-D success story in a series that started with "Chicken Little" and "Tim Burton's 'Nightmare Before Christmas.'"

For some insights into what's making 3-D so attractive to Hollywood, I caught up Thursday morning with Buena Vista Pictures Domestic Distribution president Chuck Viane. "As you know, we're very committed to enhancing the theatergoing experience and finding ways to make the theatrical experience not replicable in the home theater environment," Viane told me. "And 3-D offers you that opportunity to delineate yourself from everything else in the marketplace. Easter, as always, is just jammed with family type product. So we're out there in the midst of four films catering to families and you certainly want to have one thing that makes you stand out in the crowd.

"The first thing there has to be, of course, is to have the right story. You have to have all the creative stuff first and when you can enhance it with the technology of 3-D that just brings it to a new level. Obviously, we're seeing in the results (we've had with) 'Chicken Little' and 'Nightmare Before Christmas' and now with 'Meet the Robinsons' that 3-D in today's world is such a pleasant experience. The glasses are very professional. There's no eye strain. It is as wonderful an experience as you can have. And the most important part about the 3-D of today is that it immerses you in the film. You absolutely feel like you're part of what you're watching and I think that really makes for a great experience."

With "Robinsons" Disney opened with 581 screens in 487 locations, he explained, "and that for us was really the ceiling. We took every available (3-D) location that was not competitive to another location. Obviously, we don't play two theaters across the street from each other. So we were able to max out (with more 3-D sites than ever before). It's been a really wonderful growth spurt for 3-D. When we were there with 'Chicken Little' (which opened Nov. 4, 2005 and wound up doing over $135 million domestically) there were 84 opportunities. That jumped to about 168 for 'Nightmare Before Christmas' and now we're in to 581 screens.

"And we believe that when 'Nightmare' comes back this October we're probably going to have available to us nearly 1,000 screens (capable of showing 3-D). And I'm sure 'Beowulf' (directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, opening Nov. 16 via Paramount) will have more even though it's only a month later. The installs tend to get done just before the movie opens."

Looking ahead, Viane sees significant likely growth in the number of theaters equipped to show films in 3-D: "The number of locations could easily quadruple over the next couple of years (by the time you get to) films like 'Avatar' (the James Cameron sci-fi epic coming from 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2009, which is to be shot in a new digital 3-D format for release in 3-D). Jim Cameron has basically said he only wants to do it in 3-D and I think by then he'll be able to deliver on that promise. It is one of those wonderful step-ups in the enhancement (of the moviegoing experience). I look at this as being today's 70mm. You can see the difference. You can see the choices that the customer makes. In the old days, we used to use 70mm to delineate from everything else in the marketplace and today you can use 3-D."

The growth of 3-D will also spur growth in terms of theaters able to project films digitally rather than from conventional movie prints. "You must have digital in order to use today's 3-D," Viane pointed out. "So this is digital 3-D. The beauty of the install here is that two things happen -- it enhances the digital rollout and it enhances the customer experience so it's a win-win. Our logo is Disney Digital 3-D so you start with a digital projector and you enhance it with the 3-D capabilities. Of course, there are more than one manufacturer. Our break this time is in Real D equipped auditoriums. It is a platform that is very comfortable for us and the public loves it. We've grown with it and we've learned through the experiences of our first two movies how each time to make it better and better. There is no 'gimmick' to this. This is truly an enhancement for customer satisfaction."

It comes at a time when competition for the public's entertainment hours and money is intense. Published reports earlier this year said that some 2.5 million large flat panel TV screens had been sold just prior to the Super Bowl as Americans improved or created media rooms in their homes. Now those newly purchased screens and the millions of others that were already in the marketplace are a magnet to play DVDs and keep people watching at home rather than in theaters. It's something that distributors and exhibitors alike are going to have to overcome if the movie business is going to revolve around theatrical exhibition.

"I think the exhibition community has over the last decade gone out of their way to support new builds, to make stadium seating, which is the most comfortable of all seating, for the public (because of) the opportunity to view the full screen and not have a head in front of you," Viane observed. "And they've spent a lot of money on their sound systems. This was just the natural next step to making the experience something they cannot get anywhere but inside a theater."

What Hollywood is doing now with digital 3-D echoes the way in which the industry responded in the 1950s when the studios were pressured by the advent of television that enabled people to stay home and be entertained for free. Hollywood responded at the time by creating wide screen formats like CinemaScope, VistaVision and Cinerama and by launching an early primitive 3-D process so as to offer people something they couldn't get in their living rooms on their brand new 10- and 12-inch black & white screens. It was an approach that apparently worked considering that television didn't put the film industry out of business as some observers feared it would.

"I believe that everything that is going on in digital technology allows for the future of this business to remain in the forefront (of entertainment) for the public," Viane said. "Everything is going digital and this allows them now to see a movie in the most pristine of fashions no matter what week of an engagement they go to (unlike with movie prints that get scratched and damaged after only a few weeks of playing). And when you're able to enhance digital even further with 3-D, how much nicer can it be? For me, watching what's happening to our industry is really a pleasure because we're doing what we have to do. We're giving the public what they want in the absolute best conditions possible."

Is there a type of film that 3-D is best suited for? "First off, every film has to be made based on the story," Viane replied. "Some movies lend themselves more to 3-D than others, but I believe that at some point in the future more than half of the movies will be shot in 3-D. Because of the beauty and depth of screen that it brings to the viewer, I think everybody will go that way."

As for how 3-D is impacting on theaters, he added, "What we are seeing is that in those theaters that are equipped with 3-D, the overall complex grosses for that movie are going up. People come, obviously, first and foremost to see the movie. If the 3-D screen is sold out they will automatically gravitate to the digital or the 35mm auditorium and we're seeing a real lift in those buildings. So people are definitely making the choice to come to one of the theaters equipped that way. When you can average a little over two and a half times the average of the non 3-D screens, I think that's a very impressive result."

When people are in a 3-D equipped auditorium, what they're seeing, Viane explained, is a film that "is on a digital hard drive or that could be delivered by satellite. It could have gotten there either way. It resides on a (computer) server and we all refer generically to that encryption as a 'print.' It is just the information contained in that hard drive being encrypted and deciphered and thrown up on the screen. It is state of the art and it will only get better and better. The fun part of this is that today we ship hard drives, tomorrow it'll be satellite and then the next question is where does this technology go? Does it end up being that opportunity at some point where we don't even have to wear the glasses? I have a feeling somebody will figure it out.

"I know Dolby is bringing to market a 3-D platform that does not need silver screens (which are necessary in order to enhance the amount of available light because 3-D requires more light on the screen). It still needs glasses, but not a silver screen. Each and every one of these enhancements gives you a choice and then obviously it's always nice that the exhibitor has a choice of which way he would like to equip his theaters and competition does the best to make everybody work their hardest to deliver the best product. For me, that's a win-win for the customer."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 27, 1989's column: "Paramount's powerful premiere of 'Pet Sematary' is further proof that there really aren't any bad times of the year in which to release good commercial movies.

"Traditionally, Hollywood has operated on the premise that the summer and Christmas seasons are when films with the most boxoffice potential should open. For years, conventional wisdom has had it that the rest of the calendar is made up of slack periods when people don't do much moviegoing.

"Paramount disproved this notion in terms of the fall when it generated blockbuster grosses with 'Crocodile Dundee,' which opened in late September 1986. A year later Paramount struck fall boxoffice gold again with 'Fatal Attraction,' a mid-September release.

"Now Paramount is showing how much money can be made with the right product during the winter/spring season, that long ignored period that starts after New Year's Day and ends with Memorial Day. 'Pet's' $12 million first weekend ($7,600 per screen) makes it the biggest opening ever during that segment of the year ...

"In kicking off 'Pet' so strongly, Paramount also disproved the notion that Stephen King books don't translate into hit movies. After the demise of earlier films based on King books or stories like 'Christine, 'Children of the Corn,' 'Cujo' and 'Firestarter,' Paramount could understandably have stayed away from 'Pet' ... Of all King's literary works, this was his best selling book in both hardcover and paperback. It also benefited from having the best possible writer because King adapted (for the first time ever) his own novel to the screen...

"'Pet' is only the latest indication that Paramount is in great shape under its management team headed by chairman and CEO Frank Mancuso and Motion Picture Group presidents Barry London and Sidney Ganis. Since the baseball season began the studio is batting a thousand. It hit a home run with 'Major League,' a Morgan Creek/Mirage Prod., opening April 7 in first place with $8.8 million. After 17 days of release, its cumulative gross if $25.7 million. On its heels came Paramount's home run last weekend with 'Pet.'"

Update: "Pet Sematary" wound up grossing $57.5 million domestically, making it 1989's 23rd biggest film. It spawned a sequel, "Pet Sematary II," which opened Aug. 28, 1992 to $4.8 million at 1,852 theaters ($2,605 per theater) and did only $17.1 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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