Commentary: Tween set opening eyes to 3-D

When 'Hannah Montana' opened at No. 1, execs took notice

Hannah Montana has taught the entertainment industry a lot about stereoscopic 3-D.

MDigital cinema professionals -- including those mostly unaware of Disney's tween sensation -- took notice when "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" opened at No. 1 at the domestic boxoffice in February.

Since then, the 3-D concert movie has broken even more ground. When it debuted July 26 in 3-D on the Disney Channel, the 5.9 million who tuned in made it the top TV telecast in total viewers for the night and the channel's most-watched concert of all time.

Next up on its list of platforms to conquer: Tuesday, when Disney releases "Best of Both Worlds" in 3-D on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

"What 'Hannah Montana' validated most for both distribution and exhibition is the need for multiple 3-D auditoriums per location," says Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic distribution. "When 'Hannah' was released, we kept bumping up against capability. We didn't have the freedom that most pictures enjoy where they can expand the number of seats based on the size of the crowd because 3-D is limited to those auditoriums that have the equipment.

"I think what you will see in the next wave of 3-D installations is most exhibition companies putting in two or three per building so that they can maximize opening weekends."

Some more observations:

-- 3-D can be current. Before the "Hannah" project was announced in the fall, the industry was anticipating big studio 3-D titles like "Beowulf." Another, "U2 3D" -- a concert film that came out about the same time -- covered the band's 2006 Vertigo tour, so it had been in postproduction for more than a year.

Meanwhile, 3-D production and post technology was advancing, and Disney was carefully researching the possibilities. Its findings: It was doable to make a feature about a current event -- and release it while it is still current.

"Hannah" was lensed in November and posted in a remarkable 11 weeks. The film opened Feb. 1, the day after the live tour wrapped.

And it was made for less than $7 million.

-- Not a movie, an event. Disney shrewdly marketed and distributed "Hannah" as a limited-engagement event, scheduling a one-week-only run in 683 3-D-ready digital-cinema theaters. Tickets went on sale in December, and many shows were sold out long before the movie opened.

"It was an amazingly strong prebuy, which created a necessity for us to talk with exhibition over opening weekend to see how much walkup we were doing," Viane says. "That's when we decided to extend the playdate."

The film broke records with a three-day opening-weekend tally of $31.5 million and an astonishing $45,000-per-screen average. It went on to earn $65 million domestically.

-- Content is still king. After the theatrical release, "Hannah" found an audience for 3-D in the home.

"Our strategy is to release these movies in such a way that we can continue the 3-D experience in people's homes and to the widest possible audience," says Lori MacPherson, GM North America at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

With efforts only in the beginning stages to create technical standards for 3-D in the home, Disney presented "Hannah" in anaglyph, the method through which the images are made up of two color layers, offset from each other to create the feeling of depth when viewed with two-color glasses.

"Currently, anaglyph is the only technology that allows us to make 3-D available to both DVD and Blu-ray households," MacPherson says. "That said, we continue to explore other technological alternatives for the future that will take the in-home 3-D experience to even greater heights."

As digital 3-D began its latest evolution, many pundits suggested that one reason for the current wave of 3-D interest is because it is digital. Most pointed to the older anaglyph 3-D system that involved those often uncomfortable two-color cardboard glasses.

There's no denying that digital technology has noticeably improved the process. Still, "Hannah" underscores the fact that it's still about story: It aired in anaglyph on television, and Cyrus' legion of fans didn't seem to mind.
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