The jury is still out on 3-D conversions

It worked for classic children’s literature. The signs look equally promising for Greek mythology.

Hollywood’s stereoscopic crusade has led several studios to rush to retrofit two-dimensional movies into 3-D releases. While some smaller companies dabbled in the conversion strategy before with mixed results -- such as 2007’s “ Battle for Terra” -- so far only two studios have finished rebooting movies originally conceived and shot as 2-D titles.

The first, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” is a massive hit, with a domestic gross approaching $300 million. A whopping third or so of the Lewis Carroll adaptation’s revenue is attributable to the higher ticket prices charged by theaters with 3-D screens, in which tickets can cost an extra $2 to $4 more. Next up: Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ remake of “Clash of the Titans,” which is poised to have the best Easter opening ever (the holiday record of $40.2 million was set by 2006’s “Scary Movie 4"), with weekend sales projected to be more than $60 million, with $70 million not entirely out of reach. It opens in wide release Thursday night with more screens added Friday.

The PG-13 rated mythology movie, starring Sam Worthington as Perseus, Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades, is generating strong interest from men in their 20s and 30s, according to audience tracking surveys. Among the two other new wide releases, younger girls will likely head for Miley Cyrus’ “The Last Song,” while African Americans, particularly black women, are leaning toward Tyler Perry’s sequel “Why Did I Get Married Too?”

Given the enormous returns generated by the 3-D “Avatar” -- a worldwide haul nearing $2.7 billion, with about 80% of its $740.7 million domestic take coming from theaters with 3-D screens -- Hollywood’s growing affection for the format is hardly surprising, especially as ancillary revenue from DVDs plummet. Among movies previously envisioned as 2-D productions, Sony is planning a 3-D reworking of its 2011 vampire story “Priest,” while Warners has similar stereoscopic plans for the last two " Harry Potter” films, 2011’s “Sucker Punch” and “Green Lantern.”

But the tactic does have its doubters, including “Avatar’s” own . James Cameron. “It’s typical of Hollywood getting it wrong,” he told MTV. “Now it’s being crammed down from above and now people are being told to make movies in 3-D, when it should have been the other way around.”

Legendary and Warners involved “Titans” director Louis Leterrier ( “The Incredible Hulk”) in their earliest 3-D talks, which began in December, months before the conversion was publicly announced. The 3-D switch, which costs less than $5 million, was done by Prime Focus. Leterrier has said that while he was skeptical of the conversion, he came to embrace it.

“I really think it was the right thing to do,” Dan Fellman, Warners’ domestic distribution president, says of converting the $122-million movie into 3-D. He said that while the studio is developing plans to convert other upcoming movies into 3-D (June 18’s “Jonah Hex” seems like a natural candidate), the studio won’t retrofit movies that won’t benefit from the switch. “We’re only going to convert the movies we think will play well in 3-D and that the audience will appreciate in 3-D.”

With four 3-D movies soon to be in wide release -- “Avatar,” “Alice,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Clash of the Titans” -- the fight for a share of the nation’s 4,100 3-D screens has been spirited, if not a little hostile. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of “How to Train Your Dragon” maker DreamWorks animation, complained to Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman Barry Meyer about the studio’s last-minute 3-D switch, which also involved moving the film back one week later to this coming weekend. Even though audience reaction to “How to Train Your Dragon” was highly favorable, the film’s $43.7-million opening was below expectations, sending DreamWorks’ stock down more than 8% on Monday.

Warner Bros. believes “Clash of the Titans” will premiere in more than 3,700 theater locations, with more than 1,800 venues equipped for 3-D viewing. “How to Train Your Dragon” will still be playing in the same number of 3-D theater locations as a week ago (almost 2,200), but could be put in smaller auditoriums to make room for “Clash of the Titans.”

The early reviews of “Clash of the Titans” from Hollywood’s trade publications have not been very favorable, but its fanboy audience may not care what critics think. Nevertheless, audiences could soon grow wary of poor 3-D conversions (not to mention bad movies conceived and made in 3-D), and then the bloom might fall off the rose fast.

“The audience will start to distinguish: Was this movie shot in 3-D, or converted later? They get sophisticated very quickly,” says Michael Paseornek, Lionsgate’s president of motion picture production.

In addition to making the new 2-D Tyler Perry movie, Lionsgate is making several movies all originally crafted as 3-D films, including the next “Saw” movie and the animated “Alpha and Omega.” But the studio decided to switch parts of its 2011 “Conan” remake to 3-D.

“The downfall for 3-D,” Paseornek says, “is going to be a lot of crummy conversions.”