China Clears Exhibition Path for 3-D films

Disney's Bolt will be released this month in China in digital 3-D -- and, surprisingly, local authorities are pulling out all the stops to make it happen. The toon will even be exempt from the 20-film quota that limits the number of imported pics per year that get a revenue-sharing release. The reason for this enthusiasm? In a movie industry relationship that is often fraught with regulatory frustrations and economic missed opportunities, Hollywood and China have found common cause -- in promoting 3-D. And it bodes well for the CineAsia confab, which bows Tuesday in the Chinese enclave of Macau.

Singapore, the other contender for Asia's 3-D crown, recently proclaimed it would be the first territory in the world to have a national rollout of a digital 3-D film. Bolt was released Thursday in Singapore with a single digital print in each of the city-state's four main multiplex chains, as well as a mix of 2-D digital and conventional 35mm print offerings.

The effort being made by Disney and China Film Group's Digital Cinema Line subsid is more ambitious. The pic will be released only in digital 3-D at some 120-150 locations. While the precise date is still uncertain, CFG spokesman Wen Li says Bolt is on course to bow over the key Christmas period, which is the high point of China's B.O. year. In previous years, Chinese authorities have used blackouts and other regulatory means to prevent Hollywood blockbusters from launching during Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays.

China is keen to develop digital exhibition and 3-D movies, which not only represent technological leaps forward but also can build low public interest in watching movies in theaters, rather than on pirated copies at home. Installations are moving fast. When Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D preemed in China on Sept. 29, it was limited by the number of screens available. Journey opened at 85 venues but is still showing on more than 100 and has grossed more than 60 million yuan ($8.6 million).

The love-in between China and Hollywood over 3-D does have its logistical complications. Bolt had to pass censors twice, and some shuttle diplomacy was necessary. First, only after it was completed could the pic be shown to the censorship board. Then, because 3-D does not support subtitles, the studio had to dub the pic into Mandarin and show the movie again to prove it really matched Chinese 3-D criteria. Only then could the pic be granted a certificate -- and that had to be burned into the approved master in Burbank. After that, it goes back to Beijing for replication and uploading to servers.

Uncertainty about the release date reflects tech concerns as well as the number of screens available. The country has some 600 screens operating to 2K DCI-compliant standards or better and an estimated 150 capable of playing 3-D movies. That makes China the second most digital-ready cinema territory in the world, behind the U.S., and many more Chinese loops are rushing to install 3-D. (China also has the second most Imax theaters after the U.S., and the large-format company has partnerships with multiple circuits to maximize the build rate.)

One of the attractions for operators of 3-D (and Imax) is the ability to charge higher ticket prices. A spokesman for UME Intl. Cineplex told Daily Variety it expects to charge $10.20 per ticket for Bolt, roughly double the normal tariff -- a considerable sum for a family movie outing. But in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, prices for 3-D movies can reach $14.50, and in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong, they cost $17.50.

The 2K installations are seen as fit for the wealthy populations and multiplexes of the big cities. But the vision of policy chiefs at China's powerful State Administration of Radio Film and Television and its executive arm, the Film Bureau, does not stop with cities. They want cinemas to be built in second- and third-tier cities and rural areas and are aiding the installation of 1.3K equipment. In the countryside, where villages don't have permanent cinemas and groups with old-fashioned projectors travel from place to place, equipment is being replaced with basic-quality digital projectors.

Both Hollywood and China will have to deal with new issues as digital exhibition and 3-D become increasingly dominant forces. The U.S. studios may have to weaken their stance that digital screenings be only on DCI-compliant equipment. And China will have to decide whether it is willing to continue exempting Hollywood's 3-D output from its import quotas. DreamWorks' Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is already seeking Chinese screens for January.

By Patrick Frater, Variety Asia