Journey to 3-D Rife with Pitfalls

Expediting installations in dozens of sites during the past several weeks, 3-D vendor RealD will implement almost 100 additional screens in time for Friday's bow of the adventure film Journey to the Center of the Earth. That should help speed Journey along, but the pace of the global 3-D rollout remains glacial.

Like Paramount's 2007 release Beowulf, Journey was intended to play mostly on 3-D screens when the project was first conceived at New Line. Also like Beowulf -- which grossed about $200 million worldwide -- Journey surely will boast much better grosses on its 3-D screens than in conventional venues. Yet it's been clear for some time that Journey distributor Warners, which now handles all of New Line's releases, would have to rely heavily on those conventional venues in trying to mount a decent theatrical run. So the film's extra-dimensional aspects have been more muted in recent marketing materials for the Brendan Fraser starrer. But nobody is claiming that the situation is ideal.

"3-D is the future, so why is exhibition dragging its feet?" Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman asked Wednesday. "I'm pleased Journey will be the biggest digital 3-D release to date. But it is disconcerting that since November, the 3-D screen count has only gone up from 660 (for Beowulf) to 854 noncompetitive locations for Journey. "

Beverly Hills-based RealD operates more than 90% of the world's 1,400 3-D screens, including more than 1,100 RealD screens in the U.S. and Canada. But the close proximity of some of the domestic installations means a couple hundred or so are unfeasible to use on Journey or likely any other single release. Double-screening in some locations means that Journey -- a roughly $60 million production set for more than 2,800 total engagements -- will play on about 950 3-D screens. Yet that's still a couple hundred lower than producers New Line and Walden Media envisioned as recently as March.

Partly as a result of the limited 3-D platform, Journey is expected to open only in the teen millions and likely will finish its first weekend midtable in the weekend's ranking of top grossers. A handful of foreign territories will get Journey day-and-date with its domestic bow, but the international 3-D situation is even more of a blur.

RealD also has 220 international installations, including 126 in Europe, and recently struck a contract to equip 600 screens in the U.K. and elsewhere once they are equipped for digital projection. And there's the rub, particularly for Europe. Except in the Imax format, you can't have 3-D without digital projection, and the digital rollout in Europe has been agonizingly slow. Hollywood has proved less generous in its approach to helping exhibitors there shoulder the costs of digital installations, which average about $100,000.

The U.S. has almost 5,000 screens equipped to project movies digitally, whereas estimates of Europe's installed base of movie-quality digital screens run as low as 1,000 screens. Many of the European installations feature lease-to-buy arrangements with systems vendors, and others were financed with government subsidies. A pair of d-cinema companies recently inked financing agreements with studios that could lead to thousands of additional European installations during the next several years if exhibitors agree to participate and carry up to one-third of the costs themselves.

Asia's digital-cinema rollout is more fully progressed at about 6,500 digital screens, though many of its digital installations offer resolution quality that would be deemed insuffcient in most territories outside the region.

In the U.S. -- where the digital rollout continues even as financing discussions drag on between studios and major circuits -- RealD has struck pacts with Regal, Cinemark and others to install thousands of 3-D systems during the next few years. That can't happen too soon for Hollywood studios, which collectively have slotted a dozen 3-D films for 2009 release.

"We are waiting like everybody else for digital to be installed," RealD chairman and CEO Michael Lewis said. "In multiplexes where there is digital capability, RealD (has at least one screen) in 90% of those."

By Carl DiOrio, The Hollywood Reporter