risky business

The 3-D revolution won't work without real stories

Everywhere you turned at this week's ShoWest, distributors and exhibitors were looking at the future of the film business through rose-colored, albeit polarized, glasses.

Real D 3-D and Dolby Digital 3-D were busy showing off their competing wares, and the studios were just as busy doing a little branding of their own. Disney, a pioneer in modern-day 3-D, boasts that its offerings come in Disney Digital 3-D, naturally, while DreamWorks Animation, which will be rolling out all its movies in digital 3-D starting next year, will bill its movies as Ultimate 3-D.

DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has turned into the Johnny Appleseed of 3-D — traveling the world to persuade theater owners to convert to digital 3-D and to do it fast — was preaching to the choir.

"I believe this is an opportunity for all of us to actually grow admissions, not just revenues," he said.

But for all the talk surrounding born-again 3-D, the new crop of 3-D movies on display here suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While 3-D might bring added value to the movies, 3-D by itself is not likely to push a movie beyond its targeted demographics. It will allow theater owners to charge higher ticket prices, but will it necessarily attract more admissions?

Upcoming titles might offer some answers.

New distributor Summit Entertainment, for example, showed off an extended sequence from its Aug. 22 release "Fly Me to the Moon," directed by Ben Stassen. The film revolves around three houseflies that tag along on the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. The 3-D allows the weightless objects on board to drift out over the audience, and there are nice shots of the lunar landing. But "Fly" has to be classified as a cute kids movie with an overlay of historical fact to appeal to parents.

For its part, New Line/Walden Media's "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," which Warner Bros. will release July 11, is a young-adult version of the classic Jules Verne novel. Director Eric Brevig tells his tale through the eyes of a young teen (Josh Hutcherson) who travels down under with his scientist uncle (Brendan Fraser). Again, there are startling 3-D moments — prehistoric fish lunge at our heroes — but "Journey" looks as if it will appeal more to younger moviegoers eager for one more movie featuring a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex.

DWA's "Monsters vs. Aliens," coming in 2009, is another story. Katzenberg previewed just one sequence from the 1950s science fiction-flavored animated film. As the president of the U.S. — Stephen Colbert is the inspired choice to voice the character — approaches an alien spaceship, "Monsters" spins off the sort of knowing pop culture jokes, like a "Close Encounters" riff, that also helped make hits of the "Shrek" movies. But then, with or without 3-D, DWA already has shown a knack for connecting with larger audiences.

Currently, Disney's "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" is spoken of reverentially, as if it were the holy grail of 3-D. Thanks in part to those premium-priced tickets, the concert movie climbed above the $60 million mark in little more than three weekends. But the unanswerable question is whether a 2-D movie devoted to preteen favorite Hannah would have attracted just as many ticket buyers.

For once 3-D is in place and the initial novelty wears off, filmmakers probably will find themselves back where they began. All those 3-D effects aside, it's still the story that ultimately puts moviegoers in those seats.