"The Jazz Singer" brought sound to the movies. "Becky Sharp" did the same for color. Now "Monsters vs. Aliens" is accelerating Hollywood's 3-D revolution.
Change in the movie business usually happens at a glacial pace, but the surging popularity of 3-D movies, dramatized by "Monsters vs. Aliens' " $59.3-million opening weekend -- the biggest for a 3-D movie -- has directors and studio executives quickly reconsidering which, and how many, of their future film projects can be reworked into the immersive medium.
" 'Monsters vs. Aliens' is the BC-AD of the 3-D platform," said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment, which sold $5.1 million of tickets for the animated film's opening weekend in large-format Imax theaters, almost all of which showed the space-invasion comedy in 3-D. "Fifteen years from now, when people are talking about 3-D, they will talk about the business before 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and the business after 'Monsters vs. Aliens.' It's the line in the sand."
Like many recent 3-D hits ("Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Bolt") that preceded it, DreamWorks Animation's "Monsters vs. Aliens" is a kid-friendly film. But the next wave of 3-D titles will include R-rated horror, some general audience live-action comedies and perhaps even an art-house film or two.
"You could do 'My Dinner With Andre' in 3-D, and it would be incredibly compelling," said Patrick Lussier, director of January's "My Bloody Valentine," the first modern horror movie in 3-D. "Suddenly, you are seeing that this new venue is more than a fad."
The filmmaking brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly are considering making their planned live-action feature "The Three Stooges" in 3-D, Lionsgate Films is developing as many as half a dozen potential 3-D movies, and Walt Disney Co. is using the stereoscopic technique not only for a flood of upcoming animated films but also for live-action titles, including the dance movie "Step Up 3-D" and a remake of the sci-fi story "Tron."
At last week's ShoWest, the annual convention of movie theater owners, DreamWorks Animation SKG head Jeffrey Katzenberg celebrated the format's rapid growth: By his count, there are more than 40 3-D movies in production, with the release slate growing by 50%, with 10 titles set to come out this year and 15 in 2010.
Although making a movie in 3-D can add as much as 15% to a film's budget -- DreamWorks said 3-D added about $15 million to "Monsters vs. Aliens' " original $150-million budget -- the studios are rushing to the format for several reasons.
Even with 2009 box-office admissions running about 8% ahead of last year's pace, movies shown in 3-D have been able to generate higher per-capita revenue than 2-D movies because premium ticket prices for adults can run as much as $6 higher. In its second weekend of release, "Monsters vs. Aliens" was on pace to gross more than $30 million. That placed it well behind "Fast & Furious," but it was nevertheless a solid return for a second weekend.
With bootleg copies of films draining billions from Hollywood coffers -- a nearly complete version of this summer's big-budget "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" landed on the Internet last week -- 3-D movies are nearly impossible to pirate because they can be projected only on special screens and seen through 3-D glasses.
Finally, well-executed 3-D movies can fulfill Hollywood's escapist storytelling mandate by pulling an audience deeper into make-believe worlds. It's partly why A-list directors James Cameron ("Avatar"), Steven Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn") and Robert Zemeckis ("A Christmas Carol") are all in the midst of ambitious 3-D productions.
"More and more, the theatrical experience needs to be something special," said Dick Cook, whose Walt Disney Studios is making more 3-D movies than any other company. Its slate includes this summer's Pixar movie "Up," the guinea pig comedy "G-Force" and 3-D versions of the first two 2-D "Toy Story" films, which hit theaters this October.
"I think 3-D gives the audience an unmatched element of excitement and fun," Cook said.
"In some sense, doing 'Toy Story' in 3-D has been a dream, because we created the movie in 3-D anyway" as opposed to single-plane, hand-drawn animation, Pixar's John Lasseter said, adding that theaters couldn't exhibit it in the format a decade ago. "And a generation of kids who only have seen the first two movies on TV and video can now see them in theaters."
Convinced it was the best way to draw audiences to their sophisticated (and low-budget) animated film "Battle for Terra," the makers of the May 1 movie about a futuristic alien-versus-human battle overhauled their completed 2-D movie into a 3-D work.
"I really think we're going to see a lot more 3-D films," said Keith Calder, a producer of "Terra," "from big animated movies to independently financed dramas."
For the immediate future, though, moviegoers may struggle to find theaters showing new movies in the 3-D format.