In March I noted that digital cinema rollouts were fast approaching a critical mass. In recent weeks, digital 3D deployments have gained a similar momentum, albeit on a smaller scale. In particular, Beverly Hills-based Real D had two big announcements in quick succession. On May 20 it announced that Regal Entertainment, the world's largest theater chain, would add Real D 3D systems to 1,500 screens, or more than 22% of its U.S. venues. Then on Tuesday, another major U.S. chain, Cinemark, announced plans to add Real D systems to up to 1,500 screens. That's almost a third of Cinemark's total. These commitments should push Real D, which can be seen on a little more than 1,000 screens today, to about 5,000 screens by the end of next year, said Elizabeth Brooks, the company's chief marketing officer. Its closest competitor, Dolby, has deployed its 3D systems to about 30 U.S. theaters and numerous others worldwide.
Because these 3D deployments rely on digital projectors, it's natural that 3D would pick up steam as digital cinema deployments accelerated. According to Brooks, installing the equipment needed to show Real D 3D movies -- the special lens for the projector, the reflective screen and the supply of 3D glasses -- costs about $25,000, or 25%-40% of the cost of converting an exhibition space to digital. With 3D films easily generating two to three times the box office of their 2D counterparts (a margin attributable in part to the $1 to $3 premium charged for tickets to 3D showings) cinemas can recover their costs in a week. Still, cinema owners have a hard time justifying the investment unless they can count on more 3D movies being released.
That part of the picture is brightening, too.
Next weekend, Walden Media and Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema release the latest Real D title, "Journey to the Center of the Earth." It's the third of six expected this year, following three last year and two in 2006 (one of which has been Disney's annual re-release of "The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D"). Next year the projected slate grows to nearly a dozen (read the lineup here). Most of these are animated flicks, which are considerably less expensive to convert than a live-action film is to shoot in 3D. (Brooks estimated that 3D production costs are $10 million to $15 million higher than 2D films.) And kids may prove to be a more receptive audience for the in-your-face effects that digital can produce. But as 3ality Digital's recent concert film "U2 3D" demonstrated, 3D can be truly transformative to live-action movies. The U2 film was strikingly immersive and detailed, with the 3D images amplifying the emotional power of the band's performance rather than dazzling the viewer with their novelty. That kind of work shows of 3D's potential to influence the art of cinema, not just the economics.