Fox signals exhibitors it wants to kick glasses

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Fox wants to draw a line in the digital sand. Like most other majors, the studio already has signed on to co-finance the rollout of digital projection systems in theaters worldwide. But Fox has quietly begun alerting exhibitors not to expect payments for costs associated with the use of special glasses when its 3-D pics play in digital auditoriums.

With digital installation payments running into the tens of millions, the additional cost of $1 million-plus per picture to pass out glasses to 3-D patrons might seem like a simple incremental and necessary expense. But the costs associated with the theaters' digital-equipment rollout has come at a tough economic time for studio companies, and execs believe measures must be taken to prevent their partnership with exhibition from traveling down too slippery a slope.

It's unclear whether other studios will quickly follow Fox's lead in rebuffing exhibitor calls for co-payments on the costs of 3-D glasses.

AMC chief Gerry Lopez — who's attending his first ShoWest since his recent appointment to lead the nation's second-largest theater chain — said he was disappointed to learn of the development.

"It would be disappointing if such a promising technology would devolve into that kind of discussion right now," Lopez said. "More unites exhibition and distribution than separates us, and we should focus on that."

In the short run, it's possible that select distributors might be tempted to mimic Fox's stance while others will feel a need to accommodate theater operators.

For instance, it's hard to imagine DreamWorks Animation and its distribution partners at Paramount playing hardball on the issue even as DWA chief Jeffrey Katzenberg exhorts exhibs to hasten their rollout of 3-D technology. DWA recently released the animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" in a mix of 2-D and 3-D venues, and its entire upcoming slate is now tagged for production in 3-D.

But Fox also has a big 3-D title looming. On July 1, Fox will release the 3-D family adventure "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

"They should reconsider their position, until we see how the 3-D rollout goes," a distribution exec at one of Fox's rival studios said.

At an afternoon session at ShoWest on Monday, Katzenberg offered a rave appraisal of his studio's weekend release of "Monsters vs. Aliens."

The 3-D animated feature rung up $59.3 million domestically from a mix of 2-D and 3-D screens. But in a sign that positive word-of-mouth from 3-D patrons spread through the weekend, those 2,000-plus screens accounted for 55% of the daily gross on Friday, 56% on Saturday and a full 58% on Sunday.

Capacity issues also seemed to affect the stats: Exit surveys showed 38% of those who saw "Monsters" in 2-D had wanted to see it in 3-D but couldn't due to sellouts and a lack of sufficient 3-D screens.

The nation's credit crunch has hurt industry efforts to finance a quicker rollout of digital and 3-D equipment. But Katzenberg said he believes the situation will ease sufficiently by June to allow a subsequent acceleration in the systems rollout.
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