How 3D Is Fueling the International Box Office

Kung Fu Panda 2-Film Still-2011
DreamWorks Animation

Titles like "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Pirates 4" aim to capitalize on the popularity of the technology, which helped international grosses climb 30% over the past five years.

Avatar led the way. As it made its worldwide tout in 2010, James Cameron’s visionary movie proved just how big a draw a 3D movie could become. Breaking all records, its international grosses of $2 billion more than doubled its domestic take of $760.5 million.

Then, right in its tracks, came the double whammy of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Pixar’s Toy Story 3, two more examples of eye-popping 3D eye-candy, which amassed more than $1 billion each at the worldwide boxoffice.

And, just weeks ago, Rio picked up the baton. The South American-set animated tale has to date nearly tripled its domestic take of $115.2 million in international markets where it has collected more than $292.3 million.

“3D grosses are driving the boxoffice,” NATO president John Fithian proclaimed at this springs’ CinemaCon gathering of exhibitors from around the world in Las Vegas.

Over the past five years, global box office receipts have climbed 30% to a record-high of $31.8 billion, while the domestic portion of that tally has increased by 15%. And during the past year, 3D and a hot Asia-Pacific market were the two chief factors that powered those international numbers. In many territories, ticket sales may have been flat, but increased surcharges on 3D admissions made up the difference — and then some.

“2010 was certainly the year when 3D had a major impact on box office, with eight of the top 15 international titles (presented) in 3D,” Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures International, told The Hollywood Reporter in a review of the past year. And this year, that trend shows every promise of accelerating.

According to the MPAA, there are 34 3D movies scheduled for 2011, compared to 25 last year. And just as the promise of increased revenues from 3D has driven theaters to convert to digital projection in the U.S., the same process is now taking place abroad.

As of March, the U.S. boasted 16,231 digital screens, with 8,963 of them equipped for 3D. Abroad, the number of digital screens stood at 23,511, with 17,059 offering 3D. Those numbers are increasing by the week. China alone is adding roughly three screens a day, all digital, which means they can be easily converted to 3D.

The Cannes Film Festival has played its part in heralding the new age of 3D. Two years ago, Pixar’s Up became the first 3D movie to ever open the festival. And this year, another Disney entry, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is scheduled to sail into port Saturday night as festival-goers don their 3D glasses to watch Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow search for the fountain of youth.

“We were pioneers in a sense, because we were the first live-action film to really bring these delicate cameras and all these rigs and things into remote locations,” the movie’s director Rob Marshall says. “We brought 3D equipment into jungles and caves and waterfalls and beaches and ships. I still can’t decide if we were insane or we were pioneers. But we did it and I’m really proud of that fact.”

Although not part of this year’s festival proper, DreamWorks Animation will also be in Cannes, showing off its latest 3D wares — Kung Fu Panda 2 and the upcoming Puss in Boots — to the captive audience of international journalists here.

And throughout the market, 3D projects are popping up everywhere. Nu Image is handling international sales for production partner Lionsgate’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, which starts production next month. Arclight is ramping up William Tell: 3D, starring Brendan Fraser, for a shoot this fall in Europe.

IM Global’s dance card includes the BBC Earth Film’s African wildlife documentary Enchanted Kingdom 3D. The Weinstein Co. has a second 3D Piranha feature — officially dubbed Piranha 3DD — currently before the cameras. And smaller indie filmmakers are getting into the act as well — P.J. Petiette, for example, will offer the world premiere of his dark comedy Julia X 3D, which is being sold by Dixie Theatrical Corp., a new international sales company.

So hang onto those 3D glasses — to rework Al Jolsen’s line about the arrival of the talkies, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.