Plexes Perk Up with 3D Concerts, Sports

The 3D phenomenon is paying dividends for exhibitors in more ways than just a boost in ticket prices. Theaters are using the technology to draw audiences into a multiplex staple: special-events programming. Concerts and sports are getting the 3D treatment for one-time or limited engagements, filling seats in slower midweek periods and generating added revenue for chains. And even opera performances may not be far behind.

Fans crowded Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood on April 5 for a live 3D broadcast of NCAA basketball championship, a first for the college tourney, with crowds screaming "defense!" at the screen as if they were in the actual arena. CBS Sports, LG Electronics and Cinedigm Entertainment Group featured the event at 54 other locations across the country.

It's a neat way to connect audiences with special experiences that they don't typically have access to," says Michele Martell, chief operating officer of Cinedigm, a digital cinema technology provider. "You really start to create ways to enjoy that out-of-home experience and take advantage of everything a theater has to offer."

The idea of theaters programming special events is nothing new. During the '60s and '70s, exhibs took advantage of closed-circuit television technology to show sporting events like football games that were blacked out in home-team markets under then-common NFL rules.

The Metropolitan Opera helped kickstart the recent wave of "alternative programming" with live HD transmissions in 2006, starting at some 60 locations worldwide. That's grown to more than 1,100 locations in 40 markets, with this season's eight perfs so far totaling $2.3 million. Peter Gelb, exec producer and general manager for the Met, says that while the matinee opera has yet to cross over to the 3D realm, he's optimistic regarding the possibilities. "I think some people would like to see the opera in 3D, and we're eager to try it when the time is right," Gelb says. "We see 3D as a profitable add-on to the HD component."

The 3D-event wave gives theater owners an opportunity to tap existing fanbases for a particular artist or live event. Disney benefited from tween fanaticism with 3D release of Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, which cumed a solid $65.3 million at 685 locations in 2008. The effort was a harbinger more recent music 3D events, featuring pop acts like the Black Eyed Peas and country artists like Kenny Chesney.

The Peas broadcast an exclusive 3D event at Regal's L.A. Live on March 30, with partners 3ality Digital and AEG Network. Sandy Climan, CEO of 3ality, credits 3D, and its implementation at the event, as a way of creating the "immediacy of being in the best seat of the house." Creative elements change with 3D," he adds. "The action is happening around you, instead of in front of you."

Sony's specialty programming label Hot Ticket will launch Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D this month. The film's 3D footage was shot in five locations, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Seattle, Foxboro, Mass., and Indianapolis, using 22 3D-capable cameras.

Action 3D and Network Live's also have a one-week run of Phish 3D opening nationwide on April 30. The special, which highlights the band's Festival 8 performance of October 2009, will roll out early in nine cities for an exclusive advance bow on April 20.

Just as most music artists boast built-in popularity, sporting events like the NCAA tournament require little prodding to get fans to the multiplex. Cinedigm screened the 2009 BCS championship football game live in 3D at 80 U.S. locations. The event marked the first-ever nationwide broadcast of a live 3D sports event, selling out 19 venues, with a per-screen average that was four times higher than the best feature average for that day.

Sony is rumored to be producing and distributing a 3D film of the 2010 World Cup soccer games, after striking a deal with FIFA last December, while Comcast will stream 3D coverage of the Masters golf tournament, which began on April 8.

As we go down the road and do more and more of these live 3D events, we essentially convert people one at a time," says Cinedigm's Martell. "If you haven't gone, it sounds cool. But it's not until you go that you come out saying, 'Oh my God, I don't know how I watched (these events) without that.' "

By Andrew Stewart, Variety