This past spring, Wall Street analysts predicted 3-D movies, powered by digital cinema and the now iconic polarized blue-and-red lensed glasses, could boost box-office intake by as much as 12% over the next two years. And much like the 3-D movies of the 1950s, which aimed to lure people away from their newly acquired TV sets, a spate of next-gen, immersive 3-D family features are lining up to goose the cinematic bottom line.
As for proof of the reborn medium’s potential, Disney/Pixar’s 3-D Up, released in May, topped the box office on its opening weekend, bringing in an estimated US$68.1 million in North America. Up bettered DreamWorks Animation’s March debut of its first 3-D film, Monsters vs. Aliens, which raked in an impressive US$58.2 million in three days. Approximately 2,080 of the roughly 7,300 screens showing Monsters were equipped for 3-D viewings with admission costing between US$2 and US$4 more per ticket. The interesting tidbit here is that the 3-D venues comprised just 28% of the film’s screens, but generated 56% of its box office revenue for that weekend. The movie also played in 143 IMAX theaters (2% of screens), but hauled in US$5.2 million, accounting for 9% of the take.
As of the end of April, Monsters vs. Aliens had grossed US$320 million worldwide. But DreamWorks isn’t laughing all the way to the bank yet. The budget for film is ballparked at US$165 million. Add to that the estimated US$175 million the studio spent on marketing it to whet consumer appetite and, subsequently, its upcoming slate of 3-D projects, and a big pay day seems further off.
Additionally, according to Tuna Amobi, senior associate director and media & entertainment analyst at New York investment ratings firm Standard & Poor’s, there’s a bigger stumbling block for 3-D theatrical releases – paying for the installation of digital screens to the tune of between US$70,000 and US$100,000 each. To outfit the some 35,000 movie screens in the US alone then, it would take US$1.5 billion. In an economy where theater owners can’t get credit for upgrades and studios have to shell out an extra US$10 million to US$15 million to produce a 3-D film, the switchover is moving at a glacial pace, notes Amobi.
But the success of Up and Monsters vs. Aliens and a commitment from several major studios and A-list directors to roll out a slew of 3-D movies over the next two years should accelerate things. Notably, more than a dozen 3-D titles are on deck for release in 2010, including DreamWorks’ fourth Shrek and Alice in Wonderland from Disney (See ‘First Take’ chart, p. 34).
Backing the mass rollout is a joint-venture created in 2007 by top US theater chains AMC, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment to implement the digital transition. Besides being 3-D ready, digital screens also reduce costs for individual locations by replacing the printing, delivery and collection of thousands of celluloid film reels with broadband and satellite links. Several studios, like biggies Fox, Disney and Paramount, have also come on-board to back the installation of at least 20,000 digital projection systems in the US and Canada over the next several years.
It’s worth noting that besides family entertainment, 3-D screens open up theatrical opportunities for non-film content, such as live concert and sporting events that can be simulcast via satellite. And it doesn’t hurt that advertisers are starting to latch on to the medium. The first 3-D cinema ad, which happened to promote concession-stand fave Skittles candy, rolled out across 762 screens in April before showings of the adult action film Battle for Terra.
Amobi says the opportunities new 3-D technology offers to studios, and the experience it gives consumers, makes it more than just the campy passing fad of the 1950s. ‘Having said that, 3-D cannot make a bad film good,’ he observes. ‘The story has to be compelling.’