If Jeffrey Katzenberg ruled the universe — and not just a film studio in Glendale, Calif. — every movie, from titles to closing credits, would be in mind-blowing 3-D. No film executive has worked harder to realize Hollywood’s age-old dream of manipulating people’s visual cortexes with anaglyphic images. Since he announced in 2007 that all of DreamWorks’ future animated films would be shot in 3-D, the CEO has been pushing exhibitors to adapt theaters for a multidimensional revolution. ”This represents a chance to reinvent what it means to go to a theater,” he says.
He’s not the only one itching to reinvent the movies. DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, opening March 27, is just the beginning of a parade of 3-D movies soon to be messing with eyeballs in theaters all over the country. Over the next nine months, some of the biggest and most forward-thinking names in cinema will be employing a technology once used in B movies with titles like Cat-Women of the Moon. Among the 10 productions headed to 3-D screens between March and December: Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Jerry Bruckheimer’s pet-shop spy comedy G-Force (with Penélope Cruz voicing a secret-agent guinea pig), and James Cameron’s Avatar, the long-anticipated live-action and animation sci-fi adventure that the Titanic director has been laboring over for years. Even Steven Spielberg, long teased by George Lucas for resisting digital film, has climbed on board — he’s making a three-dimensional big-screen version of the Belgian comic Tintin with Peter Jackson.
The only nagging question is, will there be enough 3-D screens to show them all? Monsters vs. Aliens is expected to run on about 2,000 3-D screens, far short of the 4,000 Katzenberg had been hoping for when he greenlit the animated riff on 1950s sci-fi flicks. An additional 2,500 theaters will be showing Monsters vs. Aliens on regular screens, where the film can live the not-so-shabby life of a regular movie. It costs theaters about $25,000 to convert a single digital screen to 3-D, and finding money for 3-D conversions is difficult these days. ”The world is melting down around us — we’re not immune to it,” Katzenberg says. Though the number of 3-D screens has doubled since last July, only about 5 percent of U.S. screens are currently 3-D equipped. With so few 3-D theaters, exhibitors have had to hustle 3-D movies on and off screens before they’ve finished making money. (The critically adored Coraline got replaced on 3-D screens by the Jonas Brothers concert movie after only three weeks.) ”For 3-D to be a good business model, you need a minimum of three auditoriums [per theater],” says Chuck Viane, president of distribution at Disney — which, like DreamWorks, is now making all of its animated movies in 3-D. ”You want to be able to hold over what’s good and properly seat what’s new.”
There’s certainly no shortage of demand for 3-D movies (the Jonas Brothers in 3-D outperformed the 2-D version many times over, as did Coraline). And there’s no denying that visual effects have come a long way since Vincent Price made audiences squeal simply by swiveling at the camera. Technology companies have poured millions into developing special silver screens and advanced digital effects to make 3-D so realistic you’d think you were fighting aliens right alongside the 50-foot woman. ”We didn’t want it to be cheesy,” says Monsters vs. Aliens codirector Conrad Vernon. ”We want you to feel more like you are in the movie, rather than watching 3-D.” Jon Landau, Cameron’s longtime producing partner, has the same hopes for Avatar. ”With Titanic, I would tell people we were using technology to make people feel a part of history,” he says. ”With Avatar, we want to use technology to transport people to another world.”
A world, it just so happens, you can’t yet get to at home or on your iPod. Which is the whole point. ”In order to bring people back to the movie theaters, we’ve got to do something exceptional — we have to raise the bar,” Katzenberg says of the strategy behind the 3-D surge. ”I really believe this could turn the tide Hollywood’s way.” Actually, the tide right now isn’t looking so bad — box office receipts are up 17 percent so far this year. But overall attendance trends continue to fall, and that’s got Hollywood scrambling to keep people in their seats. ”Cinema reached its visual peak 50 years ago,” says Landau. ”Nothing has improved since then. But we have a responsibility to continue to provide the communal cinemagoing experience.” In other words, give it a whole new dimension.
3-D Movie Calendar
Monsters vs. Aliens, March 27
An elite squad of oddballs (Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen) must defeat evil aliens who land on Earth. (Animated; rated PG)
Battle for Terra, May 1
The planet Terra holds mankind’s only chance of survival. (Animated; rated PG)
Up, May 29
Disney·Pixar’s latest, about an old man (Ed Asner) who uses balloons to levitate his house. A stowaway kid tags along for the journey. (Animated; not yet rated)
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, July 1
Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) await the arrival of a mammoth-size bundle of joy, while the gang stumbles into a mysterious underground world. (Animated; not yet rated)
G-Force, July 24
Guinea pigs (Penélope Cruz, Tracy Morgan) are trained by the government to help in covert operations. Really. (Live-action and animated; not yet rated)
Final Destination: Death Trip 3-D, Aug. 28
More unfortunate teens (Bobby Campo, Nick Zano) try to cheat death. (Live-action; not yet rated)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Sept. 18
Based on the beloved children’s book, the movie reimagines what it would be like if food fell from the sky (onto the likes of Anna Faris and Bill Hader). (Animated; not yet rated)
Toy Story in 3-D, Oct. 2
Woody and Buzz go to the third dimension — and beyond! — in a reissue of the 1995 film. Toy Story 2 gets its turn in early 2010, and the brand new Toy Story 3 will bow the following June. (Animated; rated G)
Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Nov. 6
Dickens’ classic stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge (among others). Directed by Robert Zemeckis. (Animated; not yet rated)
Avatar, Dec. 18
A paralyzed war veteran (Sam Worthington) is transported to another planet, which is inhabited by a nonhuman race, in James Cameron’s latest effort. (Live-action; not yet rated)
Coming in 2010
About a dozen 3-D movies are slated for next year, including Shrek 4, Alice in Wonderland, and Alpha and Omega (featuring the voices of Hayden Panettiere and Justin Long).