3-D-ready screens popping out all over

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The Walt Disney Co.'s October rerelease of "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" in 3-D digital cinema proved a success, playing in 168 theaters and grossing $8.7 million. It even ran in some venues until New Year's Day.

On Oct. 19, Disney again is rereleasing the film, but this year the studio is planning for a four-week run in about 600 theaters.

The 3-D-ready screens then will be needed to accommodate the debut of Paramount Pictures' 3-D "Beowulf" on Nov. 16, says Chuck Viane, president of distribution at Disney. "I would say within 12-18 months the marketplace will take care of itself," he says. "While the initial (3-D) installations are going on, you have to be quite cognizant of what is available to you in 3-D."

This shift could mark the arrival of a new stage in the 3-D digital-cinema movement.

Big titles are driving installations. Paramount estimates there will be 1,000 3-D-ready screens for "Beowulf," but that figure is skewed as it counts film-based Imax screens as well as digital installations from Real D and Dolby Digital Cinema. For digital 3-D releases, 3-D provider Real D is more optimistic, saying that it expects to exceed 1,000 screens in the fall. Dolby, which announced a 3-D digital-cinema system in March at ShoWest, is testing its technology in theaters and plans to roll out in time for "Nightmare" and "Beowulf." The company did not yet have screen-count figures.

Says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners: "We are very bullish on 3-D and digital cinema. But filmmakers and distributors have to be realistic about the pace of integration when scheduling their movies for release."

This topic caught some attention recently when DreamWorks Animation's 3-D "Monsters vs. Aliens" was scheduled to open May 15, 2009 -- one week shy of Fox's James Cameron-helmed 3-D feature "Avatar." But this is not the only example as 2009 might see about 10 major 3-D digital releases.

"I think the biggest challenge is how quickly (2-D) digital cinema is going to roll out, that appears to be on a good track right now," Real D president Joshua Greer says. "As we get closer, I believe release patterns will work themselves out."

Adds Paramount president of distribution Jim Tharp: "So far (screen count) has not impacted our release date decisions. It would be a huge concern if there were movies coming out (in the same time frame) this year -- then it would not be adequate."

In the fall, National Geographic's "Seamonsters 3D" and "Lions 3D" are actually expected to open, but according to Real D, these would run during the day. Real D predicts there will be five or six 3-D openings in 2008, including "U2 3D" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

Predicts Viane: "2009 has more than its share of announced 3-D titles. Then you will see the digital revolution take over. Instead of everybody having one 3-D screen in a building, you will start to see theaters put in two, possibly even three, auditoriums that are 3-D capable. They will be able to hold over successful 3-D while still opening new 3-D. When you hear people like Robert Rodriguez talking about 3-D, they are not pipe dreams; their films are going to be made. (Exhibitors) are going to want to accommodate that product. They aren't going to want to give up those products early."
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