Commentary: Next year looks to be a banner year for 3-D

More than a dozen titles are scheduled to open in 2009

It's less than two months before the beginning of the year that many believe will be a watershed for digital 3-D.

Stakeholders have been watching closely each deployment development, from virtual print fee deals to installation financing. They have been counting as the number of screens slowly rises and productions begin. And they have been working on technical issues like delivery standards.

More than a dozen 3-D titles already are scheduled to open next year, starting Jan. 16 with "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," followed by Focus' "Coraline" and Disney's Jonas Brothers concert in February and DreamWorks Animation's debut 3-D title, "Monsters vs. Aliens," in March. The year also will include a remastered 3-D release of "Toy Story" and close in December with James Cameron's "Avatar."

The installation of digital 3-D auditoriums has not occurred as quickly as many had hoped -- the global financial crisis continues to challenge those seeking financing for the task. Still, the numbers are steadily rising, with an estimated 1,300 in place in North America (the number remains less than 1,000 in the rest of the world, however.)

Meanwhile, market awareness is growing; research from The Hollywood Reporter parent Nielsen suggests that 95% of U.S. moviegoers are aware of 3-D. That interest is reflected in the boxoffice numbers: In the domestic market, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" opened in July in 2-D and 3-D, with the 854 3-D-ready screens accounting for 66% of the boxoffice, which topped $100 million overall.

Overseas figures demonstrate a similar trend. In Hong Kong, "Journey" opened on 10 3-D screens and 23 2-D screens; the 3-D accounted for 65% of its $4.5 million boxoffice total. In the U.K., 66 3-D screens outperformed 216 2-D screens, generating 54% of the boxoffice.

The clear interest, together with the new digital 3-D titles and system installations expected in 2009, ensures that next year many moviegoers will be seeing digital 3-D for the first or second time. And these experiences will further shape opinions about the format.

One of many elements still on stakeholders' minds is the potential for eye fatigue or motion sickness.

I recently attended a 3-D demonstration that featured a variety of clips, many of which I had seen and enjoyed in the past. But this time, eye fatigue came on so quickly that I had to lose the glasses and shut my eyes for the rest of the screening.

Apparently, I was not alone in this response. Afterward, an executive from the 3-D system maker apologized to the audience, saying that the lamp in the digital projector has run well past the recommended hours of usage and needed replacing.

Now, I had seen the clips before without discomfort. But what sort of impression would this leave on paying audiences seeing 3-D for the first time -- and who don't have an expert in the room to offer insights into the presentation?

Eye fatigue also is an area of concern for filmmakers who recognize that along with the excitement surrounding the technical innovation and enormous storytelling potential of 3-D production will be a learning process as productions begin to apply concepts like convergence to their work.

It already seems that increasing numbers in the U.S. and abroad are eager to explore 3-D production -- including the variations from 2-D -- in terms of how they shoot, direct, edit and finish titles. Their interest in reflected in the crowds that cram industry conferences where production is addressed, from domestic events from such groups as the National Association of Broadcasters, SIGGRAPH and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers to international meetings like the International Broadcasting Convention.

But there are a lot of moving parts in 3-D, and while virtual print fees and deployment deals have dominated much of the news this year, production -- not only the creative possibilities but the technical challenges -- also must grow as a key industry topic in 2009.
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