Oldie good for digital 3-D

'Nightmare' became dream for biz

"Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas 3-D" changed it all.

Before that film's 3-D rerelease in October, 3-D digital cinema still was a technology people questioned. Granted, Walt Disney Pictures had quite a debut with "Chicken Little" -- the first 3-D digital-cinema release -- which bowed Nov. 4, 2005. Sony Pictures also gained traction with its 3-D release of "Monster House" in July. Plus, such famed filmmakers as James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis are committing to new 3-D projects.

But not until Tim Burton's 1993 film was rereleased in October in 168 theaters, grossing $8.7 million, did all the naysayers admit that perhaps 3-D was here to stay. It became the catalyst needed to spur the deployment of digital cinema.

"I'm willing to accept the fact that I was wrong because I did not believe that 3-D would be as big of a catalyst as it is now," John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in The Hollywood Reporter's ShoWest roundtable. "3-D is becoming a much bigger value add than I originally thought. 'Chicken Little' and 'Nightmare Before Christmas' blew the socks off all our members. When you can take a product that's been around for a while and bring it out and make $9 million, that's impressive."

Since then, Sony has greenlighted Zemeckis' animated film "Beowulf" for a November release; New Line Cinema began work on "Journey 3-D," set to open Aug. 8, 2008; and Cameron has put his long-awaited project "Avatar" into preproduction for 20th Century Fox with a release date of May 22, 2009.

"We are almost at the top of the hill and about to speed down the other side," said Julian Levin, Fox executive vp digital exhibition and nontheatrical sales, who hopes thousands of screens will be equipped for digital 3-D by the time "Avatar" bows. "There has been a tremendous effort made on part of all the stakeholders. Particularly the performance of 3-D and the fillmmakers behind it have been a tremendous catalyst to move things forward."

Still, many challenges on the deployment of digital cinema remain. More than 2,000 screens out of 43,000 nationwide have been deployed, with technology integrator AccessIT being the most bullish in its rollout. The public company said in February that it hit its 2,000th networked digital-cinema system. Its primary competitors, Technicolor Digital Cinema and DCIP -- the technology subsidiary of top three exhibitors Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment Group and Cinemark -- are in the early testing stage. Technicolor has yet to announce exhibition deals, while DCIP is putting its technology plan in place.

But the speed of deployment is picking up. On April 11, there were 359 digital-cinema screens in the U.S. As of last week, there were a reported 2,228 screens in North America.

While most circuits are taking their time installing digital-cinema systems, a few are deploying d-cinema systems throughout their entire circuits, set on being the early adopters of the industry.

"We would have continued to be an early adopter, but 3-D coming together in 2005 was a big factor to move things forward for us," said Jeremy Devine, vp marketing at Rave Motion Pictures, who is in the process of outfitting its entire circuit of 427 screens in 27 theaters.

The circuit is 65% installed with digital-cinema systems and has plans to be at 85%-90% installed by summer. Based in Dallas, Rave has had to wait on the complete installation to allow the studios to catch up. With its one theater, the Bayou Theatre in Pensacola, Fla., that is 100% digital, the only issue it has had acquiring digital product was with Warner Bros. Pictures release of "Flags of Our Fathers," which wasn't available to them in digital.

"It wasn't problematic because we have another theater in that area, but we couldn't play it in that theater specifically," Devine said. "The studios are now caught up to the extent that we're comfortable going to a 90% ratio."

As for 3-D deployment, provider Real D said last week that it expected to have nearly 700 digital-cinema screens worldwide equipped with Real D's 3-D Cinema technology, with an eye toward the release late this month of Disney's "Meet the Robinsons." That compares with November 2005, when "Chicken Little" debuted in 3-D on about 84 3-D-ready d-cinema screens in North America.

By March 30, Real D expects at least 680 Real D-based 3-D-ready screens globally, including 50 internationally. Stateside, Regal Entertainment Group operates 34 Real D Cinema screens and will be adding 75, AMC Entertainment is adding 104 to its current 13 screens, Cinemark is adding 16 to its 20 screens, and Rave Motion Pictures is adding five screens. Real D chairman Michael Lewis reported that he expects to reach 1,000 3-D installations worldwide before year's end.

A growing number of stakeholders think there are opportunities to produce additional revenue from these installations with alternative content such as sports events and concerts.

Experimentation to gauge interest has started. Last month, the NBA teamed with Burbank-based PACE, a leader in 3-D production techniques, to offer the NBA All-Star Saturday Night and the 56th NBA All-Star Game live and in 3-D high definition. The NBA's 3-D HD viewing events took place at three sites at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Hotel.

Looking ahead, Real D's Lewis reported that a U2 concert, as well as National Geographic content, is planned for 3-D release on digital-cinema screens this year.

"3-D in the past has always come and gone. Now we're hoping it stays around," said Tim Partridge, senior vp and GM at Dolby Labs, which will announce its own 3-D digital system at ShoWest. "The public has responded well to it, the studios seem to all be preparing pictures around it, and there is a lot of excitement around it. It's a much better experience, and we're always trying to deliver a premium experience."