A 3-D technology developed to help NASA astronauts practice making repairs in space is set to revolutionize the way people watch movies by 2009, when a wave of live-action 3-D movies hit theaters.
Just 18 months ago, "Chicken Little," the first modern, albeit animated, 3D movie, touched off a sensation among studio executives and theater chain owners who say the crisp, digital images of the new 3-D will drive profits in the next decade.
The slate of 3-D films set for 2009 is led by "Titanic" director James Cameron's "Avatar." The technology has the backing of Walt Disney Co. (DIS), which set up a 3-D studio with "Polar Express" director Robert Zemeckis this year, and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. (DWA), which pledged to release all its films in 3-D in 2009.
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Nearly every large movie studio and many smaller ones have at least one or two 3-D titles in production, though most release dates have not been announced.
Digital 3-D, pioneered by a Beverly Hills company called Real D, still requires moviegoers to wear geeky glasses, but the left- and right-eye images are calibrated so finely that most viewers experience no headache or eyestrain.
"None of the 3-D systems in the past allowed you to immerse yourself in the frame," said Walden Media Chief Executive Cary Granat, whose "Journey 3D" will be the first live-action digital 3-D feature film release in 2008.
"This is really the next step of film-going," he told Reuters.
Granat expects more than half of Walden's film slate to be released in 3-D within a decade.
The November 2005 debut of Disney's "Chicken Little" in Real D, in about 80 U.S. theaters, racked up per-screen box office averages two to three times that of the two-dimensional version.
Regal Entertainment Group (RGC), the No. 1 U.S. movie theater chain, said moviegoers made no complaint about paying premium ticket prices that were $2.50 to $4 higher than regular tickets.
Regal also saw an attendance bump at its 2-D screens from customers who could not get into the 3D auditoriums.
It now costs filmmakers an extra $10 million to $15 million to make a 3-D movie — a sum that is expected to escalate as 3D special effects evolve. The annual licensing and maintenance cost for a Real D theater is $25,000 to $30,000 per screen.
As ticket prices and attendance held up for three other major 3-D releases — Columbia Pictures' "Monster House," and Disney's "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Meet the Robinsons" — and studios pushed more 3-D movies into production, theater owners have hurried to convert screens to long-awaited digital technology so they can upgrade to Real D.
The tide has turned so fast that industry watchers expect to have at least a dozen live-action and animated 3-D films hit theaters by 2009 with the first full-length live-action film, "U23D" — a 90-minute concert — opening this fall.
"If we can sell more tickets, and we have enough 3-D films to generate 10 to 15 percent of our total ticket sales at a higher price, that is going to move the needle for us," said Michael Campbell, Regal's chairman and chief executive.
The challenge in the meantime was to convert enough theaters to play the avalanche of films. "As we get deeper into the digital roll-out that is critical," Campbell said.
Real D has installed about 700 Real D projection systems and expects to have at least 5,000 screens installed in theaters by 2009, Real D Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Lewis said.
"I think that will be moved upward and our hope is that we will be able to accommodate the features so they don't have a stack-up," Lewis told Reuters.
Producers are showing up at Real D's screening room and calling 3-D producers like Charlotte Huggins to learn how to make movies in the new medium.
"I get a lot of calls about how to convert 2-D films — or find 3-D properties," said Huggins, producer of "Journey 3D." "It is the wave of the future."