Like a bunch of aging starlets, some older blockbusters are undergoing major cosmetic enhancement to prepare for their comebacks.
Hollywood has begun converting some of its highest-grossing titles to 3-D for planned rerelease at the box office, including "Star Wars," "Titanic" and "Top Gun." The surprisingly strong ticket sales for the 17-year-old animated movie "The Lion King 3D," which Disney converted and returned to theaters last weekend, is likely to spur even more updates of catalog films.
For studios, it's easy to see why spending $10 million or so to render a beloved film in three dimensions holds appeal: There's a built-in fan base. But there are risks too: As the number of 3-D films in theaters has ballooned, American audiences have become more selective about which ones they deem worth the premium ticket prices.
And movies converted to 3-D — as opposed to those originally filmed in the format — have a particular taint on them, thanks to studios' hasty use of the technique to squeeze a few more dollars from weak titles like "Clash of the Titans" and "Gulliver's Travels."
As Hollywood looks into its archives for potential conversion candidates, there is debate about which films warrant the time and expense, who should be their aesthetic guardian and what the artistic rationale is for altering a sometimes decades-old film.
At the behest of director James Cameron, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures are spending $18 million to convert his 1997 epic, "Titanic," the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, to 3-D. (Cameron's "Avatar," filmed in 3-D, is the top-grossing film ever.)
"All of my goals when I made the film originally are furthered by converting it to 3-D," said Cameron, who has been an ardent advocate of the format, and is co-chairman of a company, Cameron | Pace Group, that makes 3-D cameras and equipment. "I wanted to put you there in 1912. … Doing it in 3-D makes it seem more real, more visceral, more immediate. The drama, the romance, the jeopardy — all of those things will be increased by the 3-D."
Cameron, in an interview at the 3D Entertainment Summit in Hollywood last week, said he is devoting a year to converting "Titanic," a process that effectively makes every shot of the more than three-hour movie a laborious visual effects project. For instance, if Cameron digitally moves Leonardo DiCaprio's and Kate Winslet's faces farther apart to create depth on the screen, it creates a blank spot behind them that needs to be painted to match the pink-orange sunset in the rest of the frame.
"You're making up a new image that didn't exist," Cameron said. "I said, we're not doing this in less than a year and I want to have the money to do it right and have enough iterations and go-backs that if Leo's face is flat in one shot and his nose too far out in the next shot and Kate's hair too far forward in the next shot, you slowly massage everything into its correct depth planes and its volume."
Fox and Paramount will release the film in April, timed to the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking.
If there were any worries about its box-office prospects, Cameron said, they probably were put to rest by last weekend's performance of "The Lion King 3D," which took in $30.2 million, more than the top three new films in release did combined.
The movie is on track to be No. 1 or No. 2 at the box office again this weekend, reaching a gross of about $60 million for its two weeks in re-release.
"Whatever doubts there were amongst the two studios releasing 'Titanic' … pretty much evaporated this past weekend," he said. "They see the potential. All it takes is a little healthy greed and doubts tend to go away."
"The Lion King 3D," which cost Disney less than $10 million to convert, is on track to perform well again this weekend. The studio, which originally had planned a two-week run leading up to the release of the film on Blu-ray in October, may extend its release.
Many in the audience for the film are twentysomethings who remember watching "The Lion King" as children and express a nostalgic connection to the story and the music.
"It's so innocent, not like movies today," said Alex Romo, 28, who took his 5-year-old daughter, Kayla, to a Friday matinee. Though the format cost him an extra $4 per ticket, Romo said the 3-D wasn't a particular draw. "It was cool when the birds were flying, but it wasn't that different from seeing it at home," he said.
"The Lion King's" original producer, Don Hahn, oversaw the 3-D conversion process, the most important part of which, he said, "was having the original filmmakers involved."
"That's why you didn't see 'Cinderella' or 'Snow White' in 3-D. I could call up [directors] Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and some of the colorists on the film and sit together and talk before we even started," Hahn said. "So it's not just a business decision [to do it in 3-D]. … To be able to see this in digital cinema and see it in 3-D — there is no downside to it as long as the original filmmakers are involved."
All of the major titles undergoing conversions have their artistic godfathers aboard: George Lucas has spent several years overseeing 3-D versions of his "Star Wars" titles, the first of which, "Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace," is to hit theaters in February, with the subsequent five films in the series coming out in 3-D at a rate of one a year. Director Tony Scott is working on "Top Gun 3D."
Due to software improvements, 3-D conversions are becoming less expensive. Twelve months ago, the conversion of a two-hour film cost about $100,000 ar minute; now it's closer to $25,000 a minute, according to Rob Hummel, president of Legend 3D, the company converting "Top Gun." At a certain price point, it may prove difficult for Hollywood to resist reaching even further into its catalog.
But not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of old films returning to multiplexes with new trimmings.
Converting a film to 3-D "undercuts the quality of the film and the verisimilitude of the film," said Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "It's to re-direct it and destroy it. This is a poor idea artistically and a poor idea financially."
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.