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Seeing it through his 3-D glasses

September 17, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

THINK IT would be a great idea to watch "Juno" or "The Kite Runner" or "There Will Be Blood" with 3-D glasses on your head? Do you want to see "Burn After Reading" in 3-D? What about "The Wrestler"? How would the recent hit of the Toronto Film Festival look with Mickey Rourke tossing big lugs out of the ring and into the audience?

If Jeffrey Katzenberg, the leading evangelist for 3-D, has his way, soon we'll all be watching every movie, from "Avatar" to "Atonement," in 3-D. In a much-ballyhooed address that he gave Sunday night to 1,000 delegates at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam, the DreamWorks Animation chief said: "I think in a reasonable period of time, all movies are going to be made in 3-D. When the audience experiences this . . . and the filmmakers understand how much greater an experience they can offer their audience and they can have as a filmmaking tool, I think 2-D films are going to be a thing of the past."

Maybe you needed to be wearing 3-D glasses when Katzenberg was preaching this gospel to really get excited about the prospect of seeing every serious drama, dumb teen comedy and thoughtful documentary in 3-D. And, in fact, everyone in the Amsterdam audience was wearing 3-D glasses, because they were watching Katzenberg speaking from DreamWorks' Glendale campus in what was billed as the first transatlantic telecast in high-def digital 3-D. I couldn't help but wonder if Katzenberg lobbed a few balls at the camera just to give everyone a snazzy 3-D effect in the middle of his speech, perhaps right before he said with a straight face that "people are going to own their own glasses -- I think from a fashion standpoint and a coolness standpoint, people will want to have their own glasses." Who knows, maybe Ray-Ban is working on a test pair of 3-D sunglasses already.

All I can say is -- God help us! I'm always in favor of embracing new technology, but Katzenberg's 3-D crusade is starting to get out of hand.

What's really going on here is pretty obvious. With a costly 3-D movie called "Monsters vs. Aliens" due to hit theaters next March, Katzenberg is growing increasingly nervous that there still aren't enough theaters equipped with digital 3-D equipment to show it. As my colleague John Horn reported in July, Warner Bros. had to hastily retitle its "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D" this summer after the studio realized it couldn't get more than 800 screens to show the film in 3-D.

Furious over foot-dragging by theater chain owners, Katzenberg has been trying to exert pressure in every way possible -- including this sort of media jawboning -- to get theater owners to speed up the conversion process.

But there's a larger, more troubling question to answer here. Do we really want every theater equipped with 3-D? Or would that be in many ways bad for serious moviegoers?

So far, the 3-D battle lines have been pretty easy to distinguish. For 3-D to really work as a business model, there needs to be roughly 4,000 screens equipped with digital projection equipment, enough to sustain two competing 3-D pictures in the marketplace at the same time. That's a big leap forward from the 1,000 or so 3-D-equipped digital screens available today. But so far theater owners have been reluctant to speed their conversion process. It's a sign of their conservative approach that many of the screens being converted have been in the 200- to 300-seat range, not the 700- to 800-seat theaters that fill up with summer blockbuster titles.

Studio advocates such as Katzenberg say theater owners need to embrace innovation, especially when faced with increasing competition from tens of thousands of people each month who've converted their living rooms into home theaters with giant TVs. But theater owners are unwilling to foot the conversion costs themselves, especially because they say that studios like DreamWorks will enjoy enormous savings by sending digital prints over phone lines instead of shipping physical canisters of film around the country. Theater owners also worry that with only three studios actively in the 3-D business (DreamWorks, Disney and 20th Century Fox, largely through its association with James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar"), there won't be enough product to generate a healthy, year-round 3-D business.

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