John Fithian fires back at Warner Bros.

Says studio partially responsible for slow 3-D rollout

Is exhibition or distribution to blame for the slow rollout of digital 3-D cinema?

Addressing the opening of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which will bow in about 950 3-D digital screens in North America Thursday, Warner Bros. domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said that "3-D is the future, so why is exhibition dragging its feet? 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 Is exhibition or distribution to blame for the slow rollout of digital 3-D cinema?

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, immediately responded, saying, "It is particularly ironic and frustrating that a senior executive from Warner Bros. would accuse exhibition of 'dragging its feet' on 3-D when Warners has been the absolutely slowest of all major studios to come to the table with support for the d-cinema rollout. If Warners believes there are an insufficient number of 3-D screens in the marketplace today, they have no one to blame but themselves, and they know it."

Numerous digital-cinema deals remain at an impasse over virtual print fees, under which studios agree to contribute a fee per screen, per movie to offset exhibitors' installation costs.

Digital Cinema Integration Partners -- a joint venture owned by AMC, Cinemark and Regal -- is negotiating a key VPF deal. Although many expected it to be completed earlier this year, negotiations have dragged on, with Warners one of the studios that has not yet reached an agreement.

Separately, Access Integrated Technologies -- which handles the majority of digital installations in North America -- has struck Phase 2 deals with Disney, Fox, Paramount and Universal. Warners and Sony are still in negotiations.

Warners has, however, struck an international deal with deployer XDC in European markets.

"Warner Bros. has released more films digitally than any other studio, without question," Fellman responded. "Our discussion is with exhibition, circuit by circuit, and John has never attended one business session at which any Warner exec was present. ... We are continuing to serve every digital theater that request a (digital) print. We stand by our record."

Fithian added: "Exhibition stands ready to provide our patrons in the U.S. and around the world with wider access to exciting 3-D technologies as soon as all of our partners in distribution come to agreement on the level of support they will provide for the underlying costly digital cinema infrastructure. You cannot have 3-D without d-cinema. And we cannot have digital cinema by 'negotiating' through the media."

Beyond "Journey," the next digital 3-D release is Summit Entertainment's "Fly Me to the Moon," which is scheduled to open Aug. 8. Summit co-chairman and CEO Rob Friedman said he anticipates the 3-D digital screen count for the release to fall within 900-1,100 screens. He said that with the additional screens that will be deployed in the coming weeks, Summit will have the count it expected.

Later this year, Disney plans to open 3-D titles "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Bolt" and possibly a 3-D Jonas Brothers concert film, which is slated to be lensed in the coming weeks, though a release date has not yet been announced. Focus Features' 3-D stop motion feature "Coraline" is also expected to open by year's end, as is Stage 6 Films' "The Dark Country."

At least 10 3-D titles are planned for 2009 release, including DreamWorks Animation's "Monsters vs. Aliens" and James Cameron's "Avatar."

There are nearly 5,000 digital cinema screens-- including just over 1,000 with 3-D capabilities -- currently installed in North America, out of a total of nearly 39,000.