World Cup fans view finale in 3D on big screen

Effects thrill those in audience

It was easily the noisiest movie-theater crowd I've ever been in.

On Sunday, I sat among hundreds of sports fans screaming their heads off in a darkened auditorium in West L.A., as a bunch of professional athletes kicked a soccer ball -- and often each others shins -- on a soccer pitch halfway around the world.

The Rave 18 -- now part of the Dallas-based Rave circuit and formerly National Amusements' local Bridge multiplex -- charged $15 a head for the 3D event, which sold out two 300-seat auditoriums at the venue. A total of 25 U.S. theaters operated by various exhibitors offered the 3D gamecast by digital-cinema vendor Cinedigm, and several international circuits also have simulcast select Cup matches.

It's all part of the burgeoning trend of "alternative programming" for cinemas, involving entertainment other than movies that's generally offered in nonpeak theatrical hours. Previous 3D sporting events beamed into theaters in various locales include football, basketball and rugby competitions.

The World Cup final between Holland and Spain kicked off at 11:30 a.m. PDT.

"It's the most exciting thing I've ever seen," patron Emon Harris enthused during a 0-0 halftime break. "I'm not usually much of a soccer fan, but I really think this 3D is going to revolutionize the way sports are shown."

As for the game presentation, a single British announcer did the 3D play-by-play instead of the broadcast-TV duo, and the audio feed seemed to lack the African horns-diminishing software used by ABC and ESPN during latter-stage Cup games. But technical glitches were minimal, with just a couple momentary breaks in the satellite-fed images.

My boss quipped that a Holland-Germany final would have amounted to a subway series, and the Dutch-Spaniards matchup we got was still very much a Euro-centric affair -- vuvuzela-laden audio notwithstanding. But the experience of watching the satellite feed of a game played in South Africa beamed to an L.A. multiplex as part of a global audience was pretty cosmic.

"It's like being there," patron Dan Pettersson mused. "It plays tricks with your mind."

Indeed, a stray ball sent veering behind the goal net into a camera seemed ready to land in the theater audience. In a movie, it would have seemed like cinematic gimmickry, but the theater crowd roared with delight.

Also much like the 3D movie experience, watching the game in 3D glasses took a few minutes to get used to, and the 3D effect was much greater during field-level shots than from higher angles. Success with 3D broadcasting tends to vary sport to sport, as the special cameras and lenses capture certain movements better than others while a wrong shooting angle can produce unfortunate otherworldly imagery.

Most of the visuals from Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg were heavenly. But seating position in the theater also can affect image quality, and a front-row patron complained about a lack of 3D realism.

The game result also brought some of the crowd down to Earth, as the audience was about evenly split in its loyalties. But Spain's 1-0 victory was received in good humor by those backing the Dutch, many of whom were decked out in orange.

Meantime, though the state-of-the-art 3D simulcast was quite the 21st century experience, sitting in the crowded theater listening to fans chant their support gave me a real '60s flashback.

Boxer Nino Benvenuti had such an avid following among Italian-Americans back then that his bouts were beamed to packed movie houses including the Tower Theater in suburban Philadelphia, where patrons celebrated his middleweight upset over champion Emile Griffith in 1967 with cries of "Nino, Nino, Nino ... ." It was as if the muscle-bound guys on the silver screen could actually hear their shouts.

Not unlike the scene at the Rave 18 on Sunday.
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