3-D accelerates as 'Up' opens Cannes

Film's exposure at the fest could give 3-D an international push

CANNES -- As "Up" lifts off at the Palais des Festivals on Wednesday as the opening film of the 62nd Festival de Cannes -- and as the black-tie audience of cinema cognoscenti don their polarized lenses -- 3-D film will finally achieve what it has long sought: respect.

Even though digital 3-D movies no longer require those old analog glasses -- those infamous red/blue or red/green cardboard specs -- it's had a harder time shedding the image of '50s kitsch that has surrounded efforts to introduce dimensionality into the moviegoing experience.

But by choosing Pixar's latest movie, a lighter-than-air confection about a crabby old man who hitches his home to thousands of helium balloons and sails away in search of adventure, the granddaddy of film festivals is lending its imprimatur to the newest technological incarnation of 3-D.

"We are happy to have 3-D open Cannes as it is one of cinema's upcoming adventures," the festival's Thierry Fremaux proclaimed in unveiling the choice.

While the festival berth certainly confers prestige on 3-D film, even more importantly it could help accelerate what has been a painfully slow rollout around the world, just at that moment when such companies as DreamWorks Animation and Disney and A-list directors such as James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis are betting on 3-D as the cinema of the future.

The earliest 3-D film experiments may date back to the late 19th century, but over the years only a handful of auteurs ever tried to master the medium. Back in the '30s, Louis Lumiere remade his groundbreaking 1895 short film "L'Arrivee du Train" in 3-D. Canadian animator Norman McLaren turned out a couple of 3-D shorts in the early '50s. And no less a master than Alfred Hitchcock shot 1954's "Dial M for Murder" in 3-D, but with the '50s fad for 3-D already waning, it was widely released in 2-D.

For during the first flourishing of commercial 3-D cinema, the technique played more as a gimmick, intended to lure audiences, fascinated with their new televisions, back to theaters. Despite a few upscale exceptions like the musical "Kiss Me Kate," 3-D mostly attached itself to genre movies -- "House of Wax," "Creature From the Black Lagoon," "Cat-Women of the Moon" -- which only added to its downscale reputation.

It didn't help that an '80s 3-D revival was used largely to extend such aging franchises as "Jaws 3-D," "Friday the 13th Part 3" and "Amityville 3-D" via cheap thrills.

Four years ago, though, the new wave of 3-D began to gather momentum: In a sort of summit meeting of directing powerhouses, Cameron, Zemeckis, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez and Randal Kleiser all gathered at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas -- Peter Jackson was beamed in by satellite -- to proselytize for the new digital 3-D.

"It's not just the use of digital projection, which we all know is on the horizon," Jackson said. "But that the particular technology can be used to create three-dimensional movies that go far beyond the quality and the spectacle of anything we've ever seen before. Forget the old days of wearing the red and blue glasses and the eyestrain. All of that is behind us now. These new active glasses that you're wearing and seeing 3-D with are a breakthrough in technology."

Lucas promised to remaster his "Star Wars" movies for re-release in 3-D -- a promise on which he's yet to deliver. Zemeckis, who'd already released his 2004 film "The Polar Express" in IMAX 3-D, followed up with a 3-D version of 2007's "Beowulf" and will bring footage from his upcoming 3-D "A Christmas Carol" to the Croisette next week. Cameron, who is currently at work on the 3-D sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar," which Fox will release in December, flatly vowed, "I'm a man on a mission when it comes to 3-D. I will be making all of my films in 3-D in the future."

Even as the assembled directors viewed 3-D as a new, cutting-edge, filmmaking tool, U.S. studios saw the technology as a way to boost ticket prices and grosses. In 2007, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said that, beginning with the March release of "Monsters vs. Aliens," DreamWorks would produce all its big-screen toons in 3-D. Disney and Pixar joined the bandwagon last year, announcing plans for eight new 3-D movies, including converted 3-D versions of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2."

The commercial success of the new wave of 3-D, though, is dependent on theaters converting to digital projection. That process has proceeded in fits and starts. First, exhibitors had to reach agreements with the studios, called virtual print fees, which will pay for the digital transition over time. To install new equipment immediately, they then had to raise financing, which has been hampered by the credit crunch.

While the transition is now under way in the states, it has still fallen short of the most optimistic expectations. Katzenberg had initially hoped "Monsters" would open on about 5,000 digital 3-D screens domestically, but had to settle for just over 2,000. Still, those screens, while accounting for just 28% of the screens on which the movie debuted in North America, produced more than 55% of the movie's opening weekend gross of nearly $60 million. The film has since gone on to tally nearly $187 million in domestic ticket sales and another $143 million in foreign grosses.

3-D's exposure at this year's Cannes could be particularly important for the medium's international rollout.

Paramount Pictures International pushed "Monsters" out on about 1,600 3-D screens internationally.

"I think the world is ready (for 3-D digital), but whether exhibition is ready or not, I don't know," PPI president Andrew Cripps said. "But we went out on more (3-D screens) than I thought we would, so it's getting there."

In Europe, the U.K. is leading the way. Britain's three largest cinema operators -- Odeon UCI, Cineworld and Vue Entertainment -- are biting the bullet for the costs of installing state-of-the-art equipment in their multiplexes.

Private equity-backed groups including Arts Alliance Media and Belgium-based XDC are providing financing and equipment to exhibitors, as well as a virtual-print-fee model that ensures distributors will share the costs of new equipment with the cinemas. XDC has VPF deals with all six Hollywood majors for a maximum of 8,000 screens in Europe, and Arts Alliance is right behind with VPF deals with five majors (excluding Warner Bros.) for a maximum of 7,000 screens.

"Being in the digital exhibition business means it will never happen fast enough for me, but I feel there is evidence that (the 3-D rollout) is really starting to pick up," Arts Alliance CEO Howard Kiedaisch said. "The number of digital screens changes on a weekly basis, with more and more machines rolling out. I liken it to a snowball rolling down a hill: It is gathering momentum and size."

Some smaller European territories, such as Norway, expect to be fully digital by 2010. But there are laggards. Presenting Disney's new lineup in Munich earlier this month, Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, bemoaned the fact that Germany still has only 50 3-D screens, compared with 40 in (much smaller) neighboring Austria.

Europe is easily outpacing Asia, however. Asian exhibitors were among the first to adopt 3-D technology but the digital rollout has stalled during recent months. Japan, facing another major recession, could fall further behind. Things are different in China, though, where exhibitors are pushing 3-D rollouts throughout the vast countryside.

"China wants to be the largest 3-D market outside the U.S.A.," said Jimmy Wu, chairman and CEO of Beijing-based exhibitor ChinaPlex, which will open its first 3-D screens in May in Hangzhou and plans to have 22-25 extra-dimensional screens in its cinemas by year's end.

"The international market is very different than the American one," said Fabrice Testa, vp sales and business development at XDC. "America is one market with one language. Here in Europe, we have a very fragmented market with a lot of different exhibitors, particularly a lot of small exhibitors. Progress will be a lot slower."

While the international rollout is moving at different speeds in different territories, the economic benefits of going 3-D are undeniable. XDC estimates that European cinemas can charge an additional $1.50-$4 per ticket for 3-D screenings.

"It is hard to make a prediction as to when the 3-D revolution will happen (internationally), but it will happen," Testa said. "In four to five years, we should have close to 15,000 digital screens in Europe -- half of all movie screens -- and many will be 3-D."

"Up" may be the first 3-D movie to play Cannes, but it may ultimately be viewed as the first of many.

Stuart Kemp and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.