Filmmaking in another dimension

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“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.

Thanks to a drawn-out clash between theater owners and the movie studios over who would pay as much as $150,000 per screen to make auditoriums 3-D friendly (coupled with tightening credit), there are only about 2,100 3-D screens in North America, about half the number studio executives had hoped would be available by now. In a compromise with the theater owners, studios are partly underwriting the roll-out of digital projection systems via a payment to exhibitors called a virtual print fee.

And there’s another 3-D money battle brewing: Who should pay for the 3-D glasses (which run about $1 apiece)? Currently the costs are being covered by the studios.

But all this can be seen as an investment in a growth business, as opposed to what was the low-tech, and often low-brow, use of 3-D several decades ago.

Anne Globe, the worldwide marketing head for DreamWorks Animation, said the studio’s exit polls found that 40% of viewers who watched “Monsters vs. Aliens” in 2-D would have preferred the film in 3-D had screens been available.

The theater famine -- only 28% of the more than 7,300 screens playing “Monsters vs. Aliens” opening weekend did so in 3-D, though they accounted for 56% of the revenue -- means only one 3-D movie can be in wide national release at a time. Consequently, because there are so many 3-D titles, any new 3-D movie has only a month or so before the next one bumps it into the street.


“If we didn’t release ‘Battle for Terra’ on May 1, there wouldn’t have been another window available until 2010,” said Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions, a distributor of art-house films such as “Super Size Me,” is making its 3-D debut with “Terra.” “We really do think that the 3-D really helps us market the movie. Without it, you’re starting at zero awareness.”

Because 3-D movies are best advertised in 3-D, it’s nearly impossible to craft effective television ads. A Super Bowl spot for “Monsters vs. Aliens” was widely derided, and without 3-D glasses, it looked out of focus.

Even amid surging box-office grosses, the recent crop of 3-D movies has done exceptionally well. The stop-motion animated movie “Coraline” has sold more than $74 million in tickets, and the R-rated “My Bloody Valentine” grossed more than $51 million, a strong enough outcome for Lionsgate to consider more such works.

“We want to create a really immersive experience for the audience,” said Joe Drake, president of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “For us, the take-away on 3-D from ‘My Bloody Valentine’ was that it’s an absolutely fantastic, cost-effective technology that can really turn a movie into an event.”

It’s far from certain that all filmmakers will embrace 3-D, because of the limited number of screens and the potential for making naturalistic dramas feel peculiar.

“It doesn’t translate to all movie genres with the same impact,” said Eric Brevig, who directed 2008’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and is working on a possible 3-D “Yogi Bear” and “Journey” sequel.


Despite the recession, some moviegoers don’t seem to mind paying a steep mark-up for 3-D admissions.

“It’s worth it,” said Elmer Navarette, who went with his girlfriend and her 3-year-old niece to Universal City to see “Monsters vs. Aliens” in Imax 3-D, where tickets cost $18 for adults and $15 for children.

Navarette said they were not put off by the high prices because they wanted to participate in something extraordinary. “It’s not something you see every day.”


Times staff writers Richard Verrier and Alicia Lozano contributed to this report.