Cinema is on the ropes. So much so that a cabal of top Hollywood moguls are putting their faith in a very old idea — one usually dismissed as a fad — to save the day.
“The economic model of the film business is broken,” Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh recently told a panel discussion on digital film distribution entitled “Downloading at a Theater Near You.” He had obviously thumbed through the bad news from the U.S. box office: Total revenues fell 6.2 percent in 2005 compared to 2004, and theaters sold 8.9 percent fewer tickets than the previous year. People have begun to desert movie theaters, lured away by digital piracy and the anytime-anywhere appeal of new media. While movie studios got all their revenues from cinema ticket sales in 1948, by 2003 home entertainment provided more than 80 percent. Even Soderbergh decided to release his last movie, “Bubble,” simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD and cable TV.
Technology is menacing traditional cinema but it could also save it from disaster, says James Cameron, author of the most successful blockbuster of all time, 1997’s “Titanic,” which earned $1.8 billion worldwide. “I love movies and I love to watch them on the big screen,” Cameron told last year’s National Association of Broadcasters’ Digital Cinema Summit. “I’m not going to make movies for people to watch on their cellphones. To me, that’s an abomination.”
Cameron’s white knight is as ancient as the history of photography, but it’s one that gains strength from the latest and most revolutionary technology: He hopes to revive 3-D movies, starting with “Battle Angel,” which is being shot using digital, high-definition cameras and is based on the Japanese manga “GUNNM,” by Yukito Kishiro, about a 14-year-old girl living in a post-apocalyptic future where cyborg augmentation is a regular way of life and swords are the weapon of choice (anyone caught with a gun is executed).
3-D, or stereoscopic, filmmaking is an old story. The first feature-length movie shot on 3-D film was Nat Deverich and Harry K. Fairhall’s “Power of Love” (1922), and predictions about 3-D’s potential have been around for just as long: The great film director Sergei Eisenstein said during the 1920s that the future of cinematography lay in 3-D motion pictures. The technology had its golden age in Hollywood during the ’50s, with titles such as “House of Wax” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and it went through a revival in the ’70s and ’80s (“Amityville 3-D,” “Jaws 3-D”), but then gradually faded in the ’90s (“Freddy’s Dead — The Final Nightmare”) due to high costs and problems such as the red and blue lenses causing headaches.
After “Titanic,” Canadian-born Cameron directed two 3-D IMAX documentaries, “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep,” that allowed him to experiment with digital filmmaking to create sharper, more colorful and vivid images than are possible with traditional film; images free from scratches or flaws and smoother in motion, thanks to the higher number of frames used in the process. During the journey, Cameron discovered and fell in love with the enormous potential of 3-D cinema. “We’re in a fight for survival here,” Cameron said. “Maybe we just need to fight back harder, come out blazing, not wither away and die. Digital cinema can do it, mainly because it’s an enabling technology for 3-D. Digital 3-D is a revolutionary form of showmanship that is within our grasp. It can get people off their butts and away from their portable devices and get people back in the theaters where they belong.”
But audiences will have to wait until “Battle Angel” is released in 2009 to see proof of Cameron’s vision for the future of cinema. His other 3-D project, a film called “Avatar,” which is expected to be released in 2008, uses the same technology and a cast of computer graphics-generated performers digitally wrapped around the movements of real actors (the same technique used in movies like “Lord of the Rings” and “The Polar Express,” and that director Robert Zemeckis is now using for his fantasy film “Beowulf,” set for a U.S. release in November 2007, both in 2-D and 3-D).
Movie fans in Japan wanting to see what 3-D cinema has to offer right now can trot along to the digital cartoon “Open Season,” or the Steven Spielberg-Robert Zemeckis coproduced “Monster House,” which opens Jan. 13. Other films released or reissued in 3-D last year were: “Deep Sea 3D,” “Superman Returns,” “The Ant Bully,” “Night of the Living Dead 3D” and Tim Burton’s “The Night Before Christmas 3D.” This year, rumor has it that Yoshimitsu Banno, who in 1971 wrote the screenplay for “Godzilla vs. Hedora,” promises to release “Godzilla vs. Deathla,” alternatively titled “Godzilla: 3-D to the Max.” But don’t hold your breath — the distribution department at Godzilla-creators Toho Company Ltd. knew nothing about the project when contacted last week. Even so, the pace in 3-D film releases is picking up. In addition to “Beowulf,” other 3-D films slated for release in 2007 are Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons” (Japan cinemagoers will have to wait until December), “Fly Me to the Moon,” the first computer-animated feature-length film designed, created and produced exclusively for 3-D, and films of the more educational kind found on IMAX screens: “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon,” narrated by Tom Hanks, “Dinosaurs 3-D: Land of the Dinosaurs” and “Dolphins & Whales 3-D.”
“IMAX has also plans,” says IMAX publicist Sarah Gormley “to release in the U.S. during 2007 at least two or three feature films in 3-D,” and among them there could be hits like “Spider-Man 3″ or “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” IMAX rival Real D will release National Geographic’s “Roar: Lions of the Kalahari,” and “Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure,” while rock band U2 plan to release a 3-D concert film in mid- to late-2007. Looking farther out, 2008 should see, along with Cameron’s “Avatar,” the arrival of New Line Cinema’s “Journey 3-D,” an update of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
This year, the great hope for 3-D cinema is none other than George Lucas, who announced in 2005 that, starting in 2007, his entire “Star Wars” trilogy would be released again in 3-D to celebrate the 30th year since the release of the first movie in May 1977. Lucasfilm have remained tight-lipped about the project since, and the release date has not been announced, but it promises to be a leap forward for 3-D cinema, according to “Sin City” director Robert Rodriguez, who made “Spy Kids 3-D” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” using the first 3-D cameras that Cameron codeveloped. “I was astonished: It’s like seeing it for the first time,” Rodriguez said after watching the first 3-D test on “Star Wars.” “People will queue up to watch again movies from the past transformed with this technology.”
The company behind the 3-D rendering for “Star Wars,” California-based In-Three, recently told The Japan Times that the famous sequence where Darth Vader enters Princess Leia’s starship, converted into 3-D, will mark a new era for cinema, allowing the dark angel of the saga to pop out from the big screen and visually enter theaters, a new “first” in movie history for the film that started the era of visual-effects blockbusters.
The company uses a proprietary process dubbed “dimensionalization,” which takes 2-D images and digitally creates depth from the perspective of a camera positioned to the left of the action and then from the perspective of one placed on the right — all in post-production, according to In-Three CEO and President Michael Kaye. To watch the movies, people must still wear special glasses, but ones far more sophisticated than the early red-and-blue lensed models.
“They are battery-powered and synchronized to on-screen images via infrared signals,” Kaye said. “They contain liquid-crystal display screens in the lenses which alternate at a rate of 96 frames a second, twice as fast as the projected image. The LCD screens allow the right and left eye to view separate, discrete images at a rapid rate to create for the viewer the illusion of three dimensions.”
In-Three says it can convert a 2-D movie into 3-D for $6 to $8 million, or about half the cost of shooting in 3-D, and it has the capacity to convert up to 15 movies a year. Many filmmakers are excited by the possibility of rereleasing their old movies in this new format, with the likes of Peter Jackson expected to use the company to develop a 3-D version of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “I think this is one of the most exciting developments in cinema to come along for a long long time,” Jackson told a press conference last year to present In-Three’s techniques. “The fact that we can now make three-dimensional films that don’t have eye-strain . . . they’re bright, they’re sharp, they’re clear, there’s no muddiness, there’s no double imaging. The technology now exists to do perfect 3-D.”
Even if it claims to be presently the only company able to completely transform an old, live-action movie into the new format, In-Three does not have the 3-D market all to itself. IMAX, whose scattering of specially-built large IMAX-format theaters have grabbed a disproportionate share of box-office receipts in recent years, has been screening 3-D documentaries and feature films with increasing frequency. “The Polar Express” and “Monster House” both had better box-office results on IMAX screens in 3-D than the original 2-D versions projected in regular cinemas. IMAX cinemas in the U.S. last year screened a special version of “Superman Returns,” with 26 minutes of Bryan Singer’s blockbuster transformed into 3-D, IMAX used a “revolutionary process” that triggered a reciprocal patent infringement complaint by In-Three, which was ultimately settled out of court. Meanwhile, Beverly Hills-based company Real D is adapting theaters in the United States to exploit a different 3-D technology, which uses passive glasses with the lenses polarized in different ways to let the audience catch the two separate images projected on the screen. Real D’s technology for projection was used in the screening of two films last year — the 3-D version of “Chicken Little” in the U.S. in November and then a global reissue of “Nightmare Before Christmas” (transformed by Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic) that earned $3.28 million in only 168 theaters, or an average of nearly $20,000 per screen, on its first weekend, and ended with a worldwide box office of $10.460 million (one fifth of the whole box office from the first release).
Despite talk that the cost of 3-D is now within Hollywood’s grasp, problems remain. Screening a 3-D movie requires digital projectors and glasses (either expensive mechanical ones or throwaway polarized versions). Although Spielberg has said publicly that he is involved in patenting a 3-D cinema system that does not involve glasses, he opted for more conventional technology for “Monster House.” Meanwhile, as of August 2005 there were only 1,750 digital cinemas on the planet (369 of them in Asia). Real D has 500 screens in the U.S. and plans to deploy 200 more in time for the March release there of “Meet the Robinsons,” with a possible rise to 850 screens able to show 3-D movies by the end of the year. In Japan, IMAX has 11 theaters and Real D has two. More are badly needed if major studios are to be sure their movies will have a profitable release, but theater owners must spend a lot of money adapting old cinemas. This is not an easy step, considering that there is no guarantee that when the new technology arrives, the cinemas will be able to keep it for themselves.
Meanwhile, TV manufacturers such as Phillips are working on flat-screen sets that enable viewers to watch 3-D films without glasses; Japan’s own NHK has had a special-projects team working on the challenge for years. One day soon, you might even be watching 3-D holographic images right there on your cellphone. Among the ecstatic choir of believers in 3-D cinema, there’s still some space for skepticism. “I think that 3-D movies can succeed only if they are released as special events,” Vice President of Digital Cinema Technology at Sony, Al Barton, told a conference about digital cinema held at the Venice Film Festival last September. “If all movies were to be transformed into 3-D, very soon the audience would get bored. They wouldn’t be so ‘amazing’ anymore.”
But even the pessimist Barton seems not to influence the strategy of his own studio. Sony released “Open Season” in the U.S. both in traditional format and in 3-D, and had some answers from the box office: In the first weekend the 2-D version earned an average of $6,133 per theater, while the 3-D version raised approximately $22,000 per single screen. Isn’t this a clear path to glory?
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