D'Works 3-D 'Monsters' moves to avoid 'Avatar'

CEO defends Spielberg in Paramount tiff

Backing off from a showdown in the 3-D corral, DreamWorks Animation is moving Paramount's 2009 release date for the 3-D animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" to March 27, 2009. The date change avoids a head-to-head collision with James Cameron's "Avatar," from Fox, that would have had the films fighting over the nation's growing number of digital 3-D screens.

The DreamWorks movie, the company's first film produced entirely in 3-D, had been scheduled for release May 15, 2009, just a week ahead of "Avatar," which is due May 22, 2009.

DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg unveiled the move Wednesday at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York, where he also took issue with Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman's very public diss of Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, who co-founded DreamWorks with Katzenberg.

DreamWorks spun off DWA in a public offering in 2004, and Viacom's Paramount unit acquired the live-action-oriented DreamWorks in late 2005, with Spielberg and Geffen signing contracts with Paramount that run through the end of 2008.

Recent media reports have suggested that Spielberg and Geffen could decide to exit Paramount, taking some of the DreamWorks execs with them.

"Steven and his team have the right to leave if they choose at the end of next year," Dauman said. "We're planning for that." He added, "The financial impact to Paramount first and especially to Viacom overall would be completely immaterial."

Said Katzenberg in response: "Spielberg is nothing short of a national treasure. To suggest not having Spielberg is 'completely immaterial' is ill-advised. I think calmer heads need to prevail."

DWA, which distributes its movies through Paramount under a contract that runs through 2013, has a better relationship with the studio. Katzenberg said the animation arm of DreamWorks has "an exceptional relationship" with Paramount. "They've done an outstanding job every step of the way."

At the conference, Katzenberg also reiterated his support for Toshiba's HD DVD over Sony's Blu-ray Disc format. He said he tried to broker a deal between Toshiba and Sony to find a compromise but was "extremely frustrated" by the lack of progress on that front.

He said HD DVD is much cheaper, more easily converted and that the difference in quality between the two technologies is "imperceptible."

Turning to the theatrical scene, Katzenberg hailed 3-D, saying it will "transform" the movie business.

The executive noted that he decided to move the release of "Monsters" -- a modern-day take on '50s monster movies directed by Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman -- after spending recent months surveying the developing 3-D exhibition scene.

Had "Monsters" stuck to its proposed May release, "I saw more and more problems splitting the market for 3-D right at the time when it will be becoming the most exciting thing in moviegoing," Katzenberg told The Reporter. "Instead of splitting the market, I want to see it get launched in the best possible way."

Katzenberg predicted that there would be 5,000-8,000 3-D screens available domestically by the time "Monsters" rolls out in 2009. While a 2-D version of the film also will play in smaller markets, the majority of its U.S. dates will use the new 3-D technologies.

With its new release date, "Monsters" will have an eight-week window in the 3-D corridor before "Avatar" takes over for the Memorial Day holiday.

"Monsters" originally had been penciled in for May 22, 2009, to take advantage of Memorial Day weekend. But when "Avatar" also put a marker down on that date, "Monsters" initially moved to May 15.

By moving to March, ahead of Easter, which falls on April 12 in 2009, "Monsters" will be giving up some of the midweek boxoffice business that is traditionally seen during the summer play period, though it could make up some of that ground from the moviegoing that takes place during the staggered spring breaks that surround Easter.

Fox has successfully released such animated titles as "Robots" and the "Ice Age" movies in March. While Fox doesn't have an animated film set for March 2009, Sony Pictures has scheduled its animated "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" for March 27, 2009. While a Sony move would seem likely, the studio declined comment on that possibility.

Internationally, the transition to digital 3-D lags behind that of the U.S., and so Katzenberg said that the film's international release, which will begin with some day-and-date bookings, probably will roll out more slowly but that the film would still be able to take full advantage of foreign screens.

On the more immediate horizon, DWA and Paramount will release "Bee Movie," with Jerry Seinfeld producing, writing and lending his voice, on Nov. 2.

"It's like a long-lost friend that has returned. It's nice to have his sensibility back in your life," Katzenberg said of the comedian whose eponymous TV show ended its primetime run in 1998.

He added that he knows "adults assume that it's over the heads of kids," but test screenings of the movie about a wisecracking insect showed that kids "get it."

Gregg Kilday reported from Los Angeles; Alex Woodson reported from New York.