'Journey' to 3-D rife with pitfalls

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Every little bit helps.

Expediting installations in dozens of sites during the past several weeks, 3-D vendor RealD will implement almost 100 additional screens in time for Friday's bow of the adventure film "Journey to the Center of the Earth." That should help speed "Journey" along, but the pace of the global 3-D rollout remains glacial.

Like Paramount's 2007 release "Beowulf," "Journey" was intended to play mostly on 3-D screens when the project was first conceived at New Line. Also like "Beowulf" — which grossed about $200 million worldwide — "Journey" surely will boast much better grosses on its 3-D screens than in conventional venues.

Yet it's been clear for some time that "Journey" distributor Warner Bros., which now handles all of New Line's releases, would have to rely heavily on those conventional venues in trying to mount a decent theatrical run. So the film's extra-dimensional aspects have been more muted in recent marketing materials for the Brendan Fraser starrer.

But nobody is claiming that the situation is ideal.

"3-D is the future, so why is exhibition dragging its feet?" Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman asked Wednesday. "I'm pleased 'Journey' will be the biggest digital 3-D release to date. But it is disconcerting that since November, the 3-D screen count has only gone up from 660 (for 'Beowulf') to 854 noncompetitive locations for 'Journey.' "

Beverly Hills-based RealD operates more than 90% of the world's 1,400 3-D screens, including more than 1,100 RealD screens in the U.S. and Canada. But the close proximity of some of the domestic installations means a couple hundred or so are unfeasible to use on "Journey" or likely any other single release.

Double-screening in some locations means that "Journey" — a roughly $60 million production set for more than 2,800 total engagements — will play on about 950 3-D screens. Yet that's still a couple hundred lower than producers New Line and Walden Media envisioned as recently as March, and the international 3-D rollout is even more of a blur.

RealD also has 220 international installations, including 126 in Europe, and recently struck a contract to equip 600 screens in the U.K. and elsewhere once they are equipped for digital projection.

And there's the rub, particularly for Europe.

Except in the Imax format, you can't have 3-D without digital projection, and the digital rollout in Europe has been agonizingly slow. Hollywood has proved less generous in its approach to helping exhibitors there shoulder the costs of digital installations, which average about $100,000.

The U.S. has almost 5,000 screens equipped to project movies digitally, whereas estimates of Europe's installed base of movie-quality digital screens run as low as 1,000 screens.

Many of the European installations feature lease-to-buy arrangements with systems vendors, and others were financed with government subsidies. A pair of d-cinema companies recently inked financing agreements with studios that could lead to thousands of additional European installations during the next several years if exhibitors agree to participate and carry up to one-third of the costs themselves.

Asia's digital-cinema rollout is more fully progressed at about 6,500 digital screens, though many of its digital installations offer resolution quality that would be deemed insuffcient in most territories outside the region.

In the U.S. — where the digital rollout continues even as financing discussions drag on between studios and major circuits — RealD has struck pacts with Regal, Cinemark and others to install thousands of 3-D systems during the next few years. That can't happen too soon for Hollywood studios, which collectively have slotted a dozen 3-D films for 2009 release.

"We are waiting like everybody else for digital to be installed," RealD chairman and CEO Michael Lewis said. "In multiplexes where there is digital capability, RealD (has at least one screen) in 90% of those."
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