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Indies Eye 3D in Search of Revenue Bump

Not everybody in 3D film is a Jeffrey Katzenberg.

There's been a steady drumbeat of interest in the indie film community, as producers of more modestly budgeted fare eye the 3D revenue bumps enjoyed by tentpole studio pics from DreamsWorks Animation and others and say, "I'll have some of that please!"

This year's American Film Market reflects the trend, with a whopping number of indie 3D titles.

Those similarly tempted should be advised that the road to extra-dimensional riches is fraught with peril, and unsurprisingly most of the potholes are traceable to budgetary constraints. There's also this big fork in the road: whether to shoot in native 3D or convert to 3D after the fact.

Execs lining studio budgets have the same decision, but the economics are tighter for indies. Essentially, it's financially unfeasible to convert imagery to 3D in postproduction for the lowest-budget films.

"The truth is, if you are going low budget, make sure it's a really good story and forget about 3D," one in-the-know industryite recently observed.

But even the most cash-strapped filmmaker can have a project that simply cries out for 3D, whether for creative or commercial reasons.

In such cases, the best option is to shoot in native 3D, most agree. It generally doesn't make sense for those whose production budgets are limited to single-digit millions to spend as much or more in 3D conversion costs.

For the rest of the indie community, 3D conversion is an entirely viable option.

"One of the misconceptions of the independent film market is that it's a small group of 20-year-olds running around with no budget and no expertise," said Nick Dager, editor of the website IndieFilm3D. "That group's a part of it, but it's much more diverse."

Still, even the most well-heeled indie producer often operates without the safety net of a studio output deal, and 3D adds costs to any film project. Whether shooting in native 3D or converting in postproduction, 3D adds $8 million to $15 million to the production costs.

Yet the extra money burden, while unwelcome, hasn't proved to be overly daunting, Dager said.

"They just deal with it, because -- right or wrong -- 3D promises greater rewards," he shrugged.

Fortunately, 3D doesn't prevent filmmakers from working with their favorite equipment, for the most part. Shooting in 3D almost always requires the use of two synchronized cameras, but most directors and cinematographers generally just double up on the cameras they have always favored.

"Some filmmakers I know are shooting their 3D documentaries on Red cameras," Dager noted.

California-based Red's line of digital-video cameras are an established favorite in the indie community, while more commercially aimed 3D shoots have tended to gravitate toward Sony equipment.

As for their respective creative impulses, indie filmmakers often have "polar opposite" motivations for 3D from studio producers, Dager said.

"Hollywood is a company town," the 3D blogger said. "They produce products for specific markets and do a very good job of that. Unfortunately, they don't let art get in the way of that. To its credit and discredit, the independent community of filmmakers doesn't target a specific audience. And 3D isn't going to change anything about the independent film community, except that when they hit a home run it will be a grand slam, and the payoff will be much bigger for everybody."

But even 3D proponents stress that it's important to plan for success.

"Ideally, you want to plan for 3D before you roll your 2D cameras, as that will get you the best results," said Rob Hummel, postproduction chief at Hollywood-based 3D conversion shop Prime Focus.

Prime's 3D conversion projects included the Universal-distributed horror pic My Soul to Take, a $30 million production by indie Rogue Pictures.

But here's some advice for significantly lower-budgeted indie projects whose producers might be tempted to grind their friendly neighborhood 3D-conversion houses for a cut-rate deal: Fuggetabout it. "We learned from Clash of the Titans, and we're never going to do another low-ball 3D conversion," Hummel said.

For indie filmmakers with sufficient funding, "we definitely can help," he added.

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Shooting in native 3D also takes special time and planning, as the format presents special technical problems, such as overcoming unwanted polarized light effects and other glitches.

"You definitely have to account for set-up time in your scheduling when working with 3D," noted cinematographer Jendra Jarnagin, who worked on a recent 3D music video and currently is up for a feature 3D shoot. "Changing lenses means re-calibrating the rigs and taking the time to make sure the two lenses are in precise alignment."

Mark L. Pederson -- an independent film producer who also operates OffHollywood Digital camera supplies in New York -- shot 2009 urban thriller The Mortician, starring Method Man in 3D and says the format is worth the extra effort and offers both creative and bottom-line benefits.

"3D is probably the biggest opportunity independent producers have seen in the marketplace since DVD started," Pederson enthused. "The studios continue to ramp up tent-pole blockbusters in 3D, but the time it takes to greenlight, prep and post these projects is very long, indies can get to the marketplace faster. 

"It's important to recognize that we really have not even scratched the surface of what can be done creatively in 3D," he said. "We've seen Avatar, some basic genre offerings, and children's animation. But we have yet to see a dramatic, character-based film in 3D, for example. You can count the number of recognized, big directors that have made films in 3D on one hand. I think the independents will take more creative risks and create some exciting 3D experiences.

Pederson added that developments in 3D technology are "moving very fast" and encouraged indie filmmakers to investigate some of the more recent innovations.

"There are new solutions for 3D production and post on almost a monthly basis," the producer said. "New 3D rigs from companies such as Element Technica and 3Ality and camera systems such as Red's new ultra-small, high-resolution Epic camera. It was designed with 3D integration in mind for it's feature set."

There's also an expanding line of 3D postproduction tools for indie filmmakers, he added.

Pederson's OffHollywood Studios is inpre-production on Hellbenders, described as a 3D supernatural dark comedy.

"We were specifically looking for a cutting-edge genre project that would be dynamic in 3D," he explained.

Meantime, home entertainment is another part of the profit model on an pic and 3D titles are no different. Unfortunately, 3D televisions are still making their way into America's living rooms, but that hasn't stopped some early content deals involving a smattering of indie productions.

Image Entertainment recently announced a special agreement with Big Picture Digital Prods. to distribute four Imax 3D titles in the 3D Blu-ray Disc format starting next month. The first titles to be released under the new agreement will be Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk from producers MacGillivray Freeman Films, Wild Ocean by Yes/No Prods. and Dinosaurs Alive by Giant Screen Films.