In 3-D! (oh, wait ...)

Times Staff Writer

WHILE movies change titles all the time -- Will Smith's "Hancock" used to be called "Tonight, He Comes" -- rarely does a name switch hint at a looming crisis for the film business at large. But that's exactly what's behind the changed title of "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

When the Brendan Fraser adventure film, which opens Friday, was first shown to theater owners at their annual ShoWest convention in March, the movie was called "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D." The film's producers were confident back then that there could be as many as 1,400 North American theaters equipped to show "Journey" in its intended 3-D format by the film's premiere, so that the film's startling sea creatures (among other eye-popping effects) really would jump out of the water.

But as July approached, theater owners were converting their auditoriums to 3-D at a much slower pace than "Journey's" makers anticipated, meaning there would be only about 800 domestic theaters ready to show the film in 3-D. Warner Bros. (which recently absorbed "Journey" maker New Line Cinema) was forced not only to shorten the film's title by eliminating "3D," but also had to tweak its advertising campaign to make clear that many theaters -- about 2,000, in fact -- would be showing the movie in the traditional two-dimensional format.

"We all thought we'd get there sooner," Beau Flynn, one of "Journey's" producers, says of the rate of theater upgrades. "The conversion will happen, but it's slower than we thought it would be."

Behind the technology

At a time when the rest of the media world is transforming at light speed, movie exhibition is struggling to keep up, which may prove particularly problematic when it comes to 3-D filmmaking.

Several prominent live-action directors and movie studios -- "Titanic" director James Cameron, "Polar Express' " Robert Zemeckis, Disney, DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox at the forefront -- are making huge bets on 3-D's potential. Within the next eight months, the first steady stream of 3-D movies will arrive at the multiplex, but there still might not be enough 3-D screens to show them, particularly if two 3-D movies open simultaneously.

"There needs to be a situation where two good 3-D movies can play at the same time," says Disney studio chief Dick Cook, whose Disney and Pixar labels have nine 3-D movies in the works, including Nov. 26's animated "Bolt" and a 2009 Jonas Bros. concert film. "Right now, that's not the case."

Despite their earlier (and short-lived) appearance in the 1950s, 3-D films hold the potential to cure what's ailing the movie business: flat theater admissions. Higher ticket prices have kept yearly grosses rising, but the total number of annual admissions hasn't budged in the last decade, and is actually down 12.5% from 1.6 billion in 2002 to 1.4 billion last year.

With high-definition, surround-sound home theater systems (and video games and the Internet) competing for entertainment leisure time, theater owners need a lot more than stadium seating and wine bars to grow profits, as there's little room to raise popcorn and soda prices. (Costly concessions are one of moviegoers' top complaints.)

Large-format IMAX screens have shown the value of immersive moviegoing; when Zemeckis' "Beowulf" opened in November, IMAX venues showing the film in 3-D accounted for only 1% of the film's total screens but generated some 13% of the opening weekend grosses, says Greg Foster, president of IMAX's filmed entertainment division.

"We're very supportive of 3-D in general," Foster says. "Good 3-D is good for IMAX."

Obstacles for theaters

Theater owners have a different concern: Even though they can charge more for 3-D movie tickets (some "Hannah Montana" admissions sold for $20 earlier this year), it's expensive to upgrade their auditoriums, and that's not even counting the 3-D glasses moviegoers need to wear.

In addition to having to choose between two competing 3-D formats (RealD and Dolby), theater owners wanting to show 3-D movies first need to install digital projectors. A theater owner with an old-fashioned film projector upgrading to a new digital 3-D system may have to spend as much as $150,000 a screen. Given the costs, only some 5,000 of the roughly 35,000 domestic screens have been converted to digital projectors, with only some 800 locations (with a total of about 1,200 screens) capable of showing 3-D.

"While there are costs involved in the installation of 3-D systems, the returns on the investments currently support those expenditures," says William Towey, a senior vice president at National Amusements, among the first theater chains to install 3-D systems.

"We feel that 3-D films will continue, at least for the foreseeable future, to produce the revenues per film necessary to support the equipment and on-going operating costs of the 3-D theaters."

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."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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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.

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