'Monsters' looking for big 3-D opening

Screen count lags, but pic should get boost at boxoffice

'Monsters vs. Aliens' review

The only thing missing has been a megaphone.

That's how unabashed a cheerleader for 3-D projection DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has been in recent years. His tireless efforts on behalf of the technology's rollout in theaters nationwide finally should pay off Friday, when Paramount bows DWA's 3-D animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" in more than 2,000 extra-dimensional auditoriums.

But jubilation will be muted by the realization that DWA aimed to open the pic in more than twice as many 3-D venues before a protracted credit crunch slowed the costly rollout of digital 3-D projectors. Meanwhile, the Glendale-based studio has converted its entire production infrastructure to 3-D movies, and many on Wall Street -- and more than a few in Hollywood -- still recall Katzenberg predicting that as many as 5,000 3-D screens would be in place for DWA's first extra-dimensional outing.

Still, "Monsters" should get ample coverage in most major markets, thanks to its biggest-ever tally of 3-D playdates. Additional 2-D distribution will put the pic in about 4,000 theaters overall, with a screen count of about 7,000.

So consensus estimates figure "Monsters" for a healthy, if not truly monster, opening weekend. Rated PG, the film boasts a voice cast topped by Reese Witherspoon and is likely to bow atop the weekend boxoffice with $50 million or so through Sunday.

Such a launch would give "Monsters" a shot at grossing $200 million in domestic boxoffice -- hardly the type of run to grouse about. What has gone right in the absence of a big base of 3-D screens?

Two points are key:

-- Only about 2,000 venues are big moneymakers during any theatrical run, with the balance much smaller venues of less significance to a film's boxoffice success.

-- Most theaters charge a premium of $3 or more for 3-D tickets, which will boost "Monsters' " grosses.

Wall Street has tracked boxoffice prospects for "Monsters" closely because DWA is publicly traded and Katzenberg's 3-D gambit always has seemed a high-wire act. But analysts are confident the pic will perform well enough.

Stifel Nicolaus analyst Drew Crum figures 3-D venues for "Monster" will contribute an average of $3.50 in extra boxoffice per ticket sale. He said Katzenberg's recent suggestion that exhibitors could charge a $5 premium seems too aggressive, and longer-term, the analyst wonders if even $3 price hikes will be possible for 3-D admissions.

"Once it becomes more mainstream, perhaps the novelty wears off," Crum said.

During a recent earnings conference call, Regal Entertainment chief Mike Campbell said he was optimistic the ticket premiums would prove permanent. For "Monsters," Regal will charge an additional $3.50-$4 at its 3-D venues, depending on location, and add another $1 at Imax 3-D auditoriums.

Regal president Gregory Dunn said the circuit has moved around existing digital projectors to maximize 3-D deployment in key markets. The circuit will have 240 extra-dimensional sites for "Monsters" and hopes that will be sufficient to meet demand.

"Of course, we'd always like more," Dunn said.

For all of the interest in DWA's 3-D playdates, the studio planned to have Par release "Monsters" in 2-D and 3-D versions. Even two years ago, it was clear the international 3-D rollout would lag domestic installations and a 2-D version would be required to service foreign territories.

Two other movies open in wide release this weekend. Lionsgate debuts the Virginia Madsen-toplined supernatural thriller "The Haunting in Connecticut," from first-time feature director Peter Cornwell, and Fox unspools the cop thriller "12 Rounds," helmed by Renny Harlin and starring pro wrestler John Cena.

The PG-13 "Haunting" is a fact-based yarn about a family that discovers its house was a mortuary with a dark past. Prerelease data indicate strongest must-see interest among young females, and a $20 million opening looks well within reach.

Also rated PG-13, "Rounds" revolves around intrigue between a police detective and a criminal out for revenge. Tracking modestly well among young males, the pic's opening likely will be limited to the upper-single-digit millions.