The three largest exhibitors (Regal, AMC and Cinemark) have been negotiating with the studios for a fee to underwrite the digital conversions. Since movie studios are saving about $1,000 for every film print they can replace with a digital copy, the theater owners want much of that savings -- known in the business as a "virtual print fee" -- passed along to them.
But it's taken months to strike a deal, which has made DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg -- the leading evangelist for 3-D movies -- increasingly frustrated. If conversions don't happen faster, there might not be nearly enough 3-D screens for DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens," opening March 27, 2009. DreamWorks' last animated film, the 2-D "Kung Fu Panda," opened in more than 4,100 theaters, or more than five times the current 3-D count.
"I have looked at this as more than an opportunity to simply invigorate an existing theatergoing experience, but actually to get people who have stopped going into the theater a reason to come back. That's what 3-D does," Katzenberg says.
Studios forge ahead
Although it costs as much as an extra $15 million to make an animated film in 3-D, DreamWorks is making all future animated films in the format, as are Pixar and Disney. Next year, Fox is releasing Cameron's "Avatar" in 3-D, as well as the sequel "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."
Among the upcoming 3-D releases from other companies are Summit Entertainment's "Fly Me to the Moon" on Aug. 8 and Lionsgate's horror movie "My Bloody Valentine" on Jan. 23.
"We decided we wanted to find new and exciting ways to scare people out of their seats," says Mike Paseornek, who, as Lionsgate's production chief, has overseen the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies. But even though the "My Bloody Valentine" release is more than half a year away, Lionsgate knows it will have to release the film in both 3-D and 2-D in order to get enough screens to reach the entire country.
Summit, however, will only release "Fly Me to the Moon" in 3-D, even if there are only slightly more than 800 theaters that can take it next month; Summit will also take the movie to several dozen IMAX theaters located in museums and educational institutions. "It's the way it has to be seen," says Rob Friedman, Summit's co-chairman and chief executive officer. " 'Fly Me to the Moon' was designed and created for 3-D."
Ben Stassen, the film's director, is hopeful "Journey" will help light a fire under the exhibitors. "If 'Journey' does well," Stassen says, "there might be even more screens coming on."
On the Web
In the golden age of 3-D, Hollywood produced 50 movies for the funny-looking glasses. A 3-D aficionado names the top 5 at latimes.com/entertainment.