Movie theaters typically love having two big-budget movies butting heads on a holiday weekend because that will keep cash registers whirring at cinema complexes.
But an abundance of riches has put theaters in a bind for Memorial Day 2009.
Both 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. have chosen that date to release what each hopes will be its first 3-D blockbuster. DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens" will be up against a potentially scarier creature: "Avatar," a science-fiction thriller from James Cameron, the director of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster, "Titanic."
The nation's largest exhibitors, however, say they won't have room for both. As many as 5,000 screens are expected to be equipped to show 3-D movies by 2009, up from 700 today. But DreamWorks and Fox each want all of them. DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been campaigning to get theater operators to accelerate the conversion to 3-D, has told people that he needs 6,000 screens for "Monsters vs. Aliens."
"I would not want to be put in the position of choosing one over the other," said Mike Campbell, CEO of Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater chain. "I want both -- just not on the same day."
But Campbell is confident that one of the studios will change its date over the next two years. "It's too early in the game to start panicking," he said. "If we are sitting here in March 2009 having this same conversation, I will be much more concerned. I think it will all get worked out."
Movie studios are increasingly planting their flags further ahead in time to secure the most desirable weekends. That's partly because of the high stakes: Production and marketing costs for the average movie now top $100 million. A movie's opening weekend can account for as much as one-fourth of the box-office take domestically. And Memorial Day traditionally kicks off the lucrative summer season.
But a head-to-head battle could leave both movies with fewer box-office receipts.
"These two pictures will have a tremendous demand," said Michael Patrick, chief executive of Carmike Cinemas Inc., who expects each of his 307 theater complexes to have at least two 3-D-capable screens by 2008. "We will want to play three screens of one movie in each complex. If we need to, you could play both of them, but you would never get as large a gross."
Neither DreamWorks nor Fox would comment, but people close to each studio doubt that each would back away from the date anytime soon.
Katzenberg has been trying to convince theater owners that 3-D technology is a way to grow attendance and keep young audiences weaned on video games interested. When he announced in March that DreamWorks movies would be made only in 3-D, he proclaimed that the technology was the "greatest opportunity for movies ... to come along in 30 years."
To push his cause, Katzenberg has visited executives of the country's largest movie theater chains, including Regal and Carmike. DreamWorks, however, has yet to release details about "Monsters vs. Aliens" to whet their appetites.
Today's 3-D technology is light-years ahead of the 1950s, when viewers donned green and red glasses. Exhibitors must shell out $30,000 to $50,000 per screen for new equipment such as digital projectors with 3-D capability and special reflective silver screens. Images are crisper and more lifelike.
DreamWorks chose Memorial Day 2009 first, and movie executives said Katzenberg had little incentive to back away from the date because the dueling 3-D movies would keep the pressure on theaters to continue upgrading with new technology.
Yet few in Hollywood would relish going up against Cameron.
His "Titanic" is the highest-grossing picture ever, having brought in $1.9 billion in worldwide ticket sales and 11 Oscars including best picture. In addition, Cameron has carved out an audience because of his reputation as a technology pioneer. Many in the industry expect "Avatar" to break new ground, just as Cameron's 1991 blockbuster, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," set a standard in special effects.
With an initial budget of $195 million, "Avatar" is set in a world where an alien race with its own language and culture battles human beings. For years, Cameron has been working on developing the technology for this feature while filming documentaries such as the 3-D documentary "Ghosts of the Abyss."
Cameron was unavailable for comment.
Some exhibitors are waiting before they make a commitment to see how some 3-D pictures perform, such as Walt Disney Co.'s "Meet the Robinsons" and Paramount Pictures' upcoming "Beowulf." "Meet the Robinsons" has not been a barnburner, grossing $110 million worldwide since its March 30 release.
Industry executives say supply will create demand. "The more content that is produced for this platform, the broader the marketplace is going to get," said Michael V. Lewis, chief executive of Real D, which has equipped the nation's theaters with the technology.
Jon Landau, head of Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, said the movies would be there. "Three-D drives consumers who may not come to the movies normally," he said, noting that "Avatar" also would be released in 2-D. "They suddenly have a reason to go because they can't get it at home."
Most theater owners agree. "We intend to play a very aggressive role in 3-D," said Thomas Stephenson, CEO of theater chain Rave Motion Pictures, which operates 450 screens across the Midwest and Southeast. "It will permeate the whole entertainment environment."
But Regal's Campbell said exhibitors also should proceed with some caution.
"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," he said. "We want to see more product available before we make the [larger] investment in the technology."