Not everybody is ready or eager for 3-D future

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BUSAN, South Korea -- D-Day, or make that 3-D Day, is fast approaching. Hollywood studios, especially Disney, already have begun experimenting with a slow but steady supply of 3-D CG toons.

And on Nov. 16, Paramount will unleash in the U.S. its Warner Bros. co-production "Beowulf" -- director Robert Zemeckis' performance capture-assisted take on the old English legend of one of literature's first monster mashes -- on 3-D screens. The movie bows a day earlier in South Korea, where there are about 30 3-D screens in operation.

But 2009 is shaping up to be the real turning point for digital 3-D with both DreamWorks' animated sci-fi tale "Monsters vs. Aliens" and James Cameron's "Avatar," the director's first narrative film since "Titanic," crashing into theaters within months of each other.

The question, though, is whether theaters worldwide will be ready to accommodate the new wave of 3-D. In the U.S., the transition to digital cinema finally has begun, and a business model -- with distributors paying exhibitors a "virtual print fee" to help finance the transition -- is taking shape. Not so for the rest of the world.

Recognizing that the industry needs to focus on the issue, the Busan International Film Commission made digital 3-D its hot topic this week at the Asian Film Market. Seoul-based company Master Image showed off its projection system, already in use in several Korean theaters, designed to compete with American purveyors like Real D. And in a country where there is both national and local support for the growing film industry, Kim Sung-woo, manager of leading theater chain CJ CGV, says, "The government needs to provide support for digital cinema and 3-D systems."

But beyond the usual tech and business questions, 3-D also might encounter cultural obstacles in Asia that could affect its wide-spread acceptance.

"In Japan, 3-D movies are not all the rage," journalist and 3-D filmmaker Takayuki Oguchi says. Citing traditional Japanese art and modern anime, he points out that Japanese culture favors "very flat images."

He adds that in the Japanese market, audiences prefer that English-language movies be subtitled so that they can hear the actors' original voices. For 3-D movies to become popular, they need to stick to subtitles rather than dubbing. But because most of the 3-D movies thus far have been pitched at kids, they've been dubbed, which turns off older moviegoers. "If the 3-D will be a dubbed version, only children will come," he says.

In Korea, there also has been evidence of audience resistance to the higher prices charged for 3-D movies, which can add the equivalent of $2-$6 to the price of an average ticket. While a number of Imax 3-D titles -- from "The Polar Express" to the recent "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" -- have performed well, other 3-D movies appearing on regular digital screens have not proven as successful.

As a result, exhibitors here will be closely watching the adult-oriented "Beowulf," starring Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins.

"All the 3-D films we've seen until now were for families and children," Kim says. But with "Beowulf," "the make or break of this movie will determine the flow of 3-D movies for adults in the future."

In a part of the world where movies must compete not only with sophisticated home theater systems but also with a proliferation of sophisticated mobile platforms -- manufacturers here also are working to bring 3-D to devices like mobile phones -- the success of 3-D movies is considered critical for the future of theatrical exhibition. But right now, no one's viewing that future through a pair of rose-colored 3-D glasses.
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