/ 13 March 2008

Coming soon: New generation of 3D films

Being a studio mogul, Dreamworks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg does not do understatement.

”It is nothing less than the greatest innovation that has happened for all of us in the movie business since the advent of colour 70 years ago,” the man who brought the world the Shrek movies told his audience this week.

Katzenberg was unveiling the first taste of a new breed of three-dimensional films set to hit United States cinemas next year. Taking advantage of digital projection, four leading studios have struck a deal with exhibitors and distributors in North America to convert 10 000 screens to digital, doing away with the messy, heavy business of carting cans of film reels from cinema to cinema.

But while the technology may be shiny and new, the new 3D films promise to stay true to their heritage. While the boom years of the early 1950s brought such classics as It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the new breed promises a similar dose of old-fashioned escapism.

Katzenberg treated the industry gathering in Las Vegas this week to clips from the forthcoming Monsters vs Aliens. Executives thrilled to the sight of the animated president of the United States — voiced by late-night cable TV host Stephen Colbert — proclaiming ”I am a brave president!” as he shoots from a handgun while the military bombards an alien spaceship. The future, it appears, is the same as it ever was.

The return to 3D is Hollywood’s latest attempt to persuade film-lovers to leave their home entertainment systems behind and venture out to a cinema. Last year 1,42-billion cinema tickets were sold in North America, the same as the previous year, while DVD sales, which have sustained the studios over the past few years, slumped in 2007.

”There is a bit of that, ‘If we build it,’ meaning the movies, ‘they will come,’ meaning the theatres,” Katzenberg said.

The decision to go ahead with the new format was partly fuelled by the success last month of a 3D film featuring teenage star Miley Cyrus.

Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert took $33-million on its opening weekend in February despite being released on just 683 screens.

That feat has emboldened the studios to push ahead with a programme to convert more screens to digital. The first 3 700 screens will be converted by October at a cost of $700-million. So keen are the studios on the promise of the new technology that four of them — Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Universal — are bearing the cost.

Currently, only 4 600 of the estimated 38 000 cinema screens in North America are digital. Of those, just over 1 000 have the capability to screen films in 3D.

The realisation that there might be an untapped market for 3D animation came with the release of Chicken Little in November 2005. The 3D version more than doubled the per-screen box-office take of its 2D cousin.

The success of the 3D version of Polar Express also caught the attention of the studios, grossing more than $45-million on its release in Imax theatres in 2004.

Those successes have spurred a burst of 3D film-making, with enhanced versions of old animation hits being prepared, as well as a crop of new films. Toy Story 3 is being made in 3D, while the first two films in the franchise are being prepared for re-release in 3D versions.

Big-name directors are signing up to make 3D films, including Tim Burton and James Cameron, whose 3D Avatar is due next year. Other titles scheduled to get the 3D treatment include How to Train Your Dragon and a remake of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

And while the subject matter of the new crop of 3D films sounds familiar, so does the means of watching them: through a pair of wonky glasses bearing one green lens and one red lens.

Katzenberg promised, however, that none of the side effects such as nausea and headaches will afflict audiences this time around.

”This isn’t our father’s 3D,” he said. ”The digital projection puts a perfect image on the screen. There is no ghosting, no eye strain or nausea.”


1890: British pioneer William Friese-Greene files patent for 3D film process

1922: The Power of Love screened, the first theatrical release in 3D

1934: The Lumière brothers release a series of shorts in 3D, including their 1895 sensation, l’Arrivée du Train

1952: The golden age of 3D film begins with the release of Bwana Devil

1953: Vincent Price makes his 3D debut in House of Wax. He went on to star in more 3-D features than any other actor

1970: New wave of 3D films begins with sex comedy The Stewardesses

1990s: Imax cinemas began screening 3D documentaries and films – guardian.co.uk Â