Sunday, May 26, 2013

3-D Movies

A Battle In The Third Dimension: Studios Vs. Theater Owners
(By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY, 2009)

 These should be ebullient times for those in the movie business.  Patrons are flocking to theaters in numbers not seen since the advent of television. Ticket sales are on pace to hit $10 billion this year, an all-time high. And with a recession that shows no sign of slowing, theater owners, along with fast-food chains and discount retailers, find themselves in boom times they could not have predicted a year ago.  But a rift is growing between the people who make movies and the people who show them, a dispute that could grow as heated as when exhibitors weighed featuring "talkies" nine decades ago. 

At the center of the debate: the cheap plastic glasses that render films in three dimensions.  They would seem a throwaway item, if not a throwaway issue. Last year saw fewer than a dozen 3-D films, and several made little impact on the box office. This year's anticipated Jonas Brothers: 3D Concert Experience was one of the few flops in an otherwise stellar year.  But as the ShoWest convention of theater owners nears its conclusion tonight, it's clear that Hollywood's most powerful brokers are growing more impatient with multiplex owners slow to spend the millions on 3-D technology, digital equipment and other improvements.  The revolution in image and sound is coming, they say, and movie houses that aren't on board will go the way of the eight-track.

Some theater owners argue their profit margins don't come close to those of major studios. They wonder whether audiences will see 3-D as a fad similar to the "Sensurround" effects of shaking floors and blaring speakers for films such as Earthquake in the mid-1970s. Studios and theaters are even feuding over who should pay for the glasses.  At stake is millions, perhaps billions, in revenues for studios, filmmakers and theater owners. Some exhibitors, though, worry that the gamble could cost them their multiplexes if it fails.  "We've been waiting for 30 years for an opportunity like this," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, which just had a monster hit in the animated film Monsters vs. Aliens. "We're seeing business pick up in a way it isn't even for Wal-Mart or McDonald's. The time to move is now."

It isn't that simple, says Robert Kern, owner of the four-screen Sayville Theaters in Long Island.  "Us doing better business isn't exactly the same as them doing better business," Kern says. "Business is up lately. But we're not just rolling in money."  The 3-D revolution got its early push from a Tom Hanks animated Christmas film.  In 2004, Katzenberg went to see The Polar Express in part for entertainment, in part to check out the competition. He says he came out a changed man.  "I remember walking out of that thinking, 'This is the future of movies,' " Katzenberg says. "I haven't thought twice about it since."

He helped raise $165 million for Monsters vs. Aliens, which he saw as a lab experiment for America's appetite for 3-D.  "There aren't 10 movies made in Hollywood a year for that kind of money," he says with some pride. "We were going to do this right, tell the best possible story, and see how people liked it."  They turned out in droves. The film, playing in both 2-D and 3-D, took in $59.3 million — almost $10 million more than most analysts had projected.  More important to Katzenberg and executives at DreamWorks were the audience survey results from some of the most extensive polling in the studio's history: Though they made up only 28% of the theaters, 3-D-equipped movie houses made up 56% of business.  About 38% of the audience said they saw the movie in 2-D because they couldn't find a 3-D screen.  "Imagine what those numbers would have been like if we had the number of 3-D screens we should have," Katzenberg says.

Many moviegoers are already converts. Jessica Kay of Northridge, Calif., drove her two boys 25 miles to see the film in 3-D at Universal Studio's high-tech Citywalk Stadium theaters.  "Kids expect things to look as good as their video games," says Kay, 47. "It's worth the drive, even if traffic is a pain."  For other movie fans, though, the hullabaloo is a mystery.  "Personally, I don't see the fuss," says James Ballantine of Culver City, Calif. "I don't like the glasses. It's too gimmicky."

The sentiment won't slow big 3-D projects, including James Cameron's Avatar, due Dec. 18, and Shrek Goes Fourth, slated for May 21, 2010.  Among industry professionals, there's little debating the advantage of 3-D and the digital movie experience. The 3-D films of today are worlds beyond the gimmicky trend of the '50s, with such titles as Gorilla at Large and Cat Women of the Moon.  Digital projectors eliminate the worry over film degradation because movies are held on a hard drive, and they allow theaters to simulcast concerts and sporting events.  But both remain nascent and expensive technologies. A digital projector alone can cost $75,000, and the cost is more than double for 3-D equipment. So far, about 6,000 of the nation's 39,000 movie screens are digital, and 2,000 are 3-D capable.  The numbers are growing, but the push to get theater owners in line has gotten testy. Katzenberg has been outspoken in his criticism of those reluctant to join the revolution.

Earlier this week, John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, shot back. "With all due respect to my friend Jeffrey Katzenberg, who keeps bashing the cinema experience," Fithian said, "moviegoing has never been as exciting, as comfortable and convenient as it is today."  Still, he acknowledges that 3-D is a force all theater owners will eventually face. "This is a game changer," he says. "And there aren't too many of those in our business."  The last one?  "Sound."

Indeed, the debate over 3-D harks back to the battle over movies with sound in the late 1920s. Purists, including Charlie Chaplin, believed that sound would rob films of their imaginative quality. He refused to use dialogue in his 1931 classic City Lights as a protest to the movement, even though talkies had become the norm by then.  Lynne McQuaker of the seven-theater Studio Movie Grill company in Dallas doubts the battle will ever be that pitched again. If anything, she says, theater owners will be the agents of change.  Her theater chain, for instance, has not only gone digital, but also grills dinner to order for customers. When Sex and the City made its debut last year, the chain mixed 30 gallons of the show's signature drink, Cosmopolitans, and sold every last drop, she says.  "You have to be willing to do just about anything," she says. "We're competing with too many alternatives to stand still. Even if it costs some money."

Jeff Brein of Seattle's nine-house Far Away Entertainment Theater Group isn't so sure the 3-D uprising is a sure bet. Yet.  "I know, at some point, the movie industry is going to have to upgrade to hard drives and digital screens and all that," he says.  But his fear is that "people will see 3-D as some craze that's going to pass," he says. "The last thing you want is to spend all this money and have people roll their eyes when they hear another 3-D animated movie is coming."  Ultimately, Brein and McQuaker agree, the fate of the film industry lies in something basic.  "All of these advancements are great," Brein says. "But it's still going to come down to the movies themselves. If the stories are good, people are going to come to see it, regardless of how it looks. If the stories are good, we'll be fine. If they're not, we're in trouble."

Cameron Thinks In Another Dimension
(Associated Press, July, 2009)

 When James Cameron directed his first 3-D film, "Terminator 2: 3-D," for Universal Studios theme parks more than a decade ago, the bulky camera equipment made some shots awkward or impossible.  The 450-pound contraption -- which had two film cameras mounted on a metal frame -- was so heavy that producers had to jury-rig construction equipment to lift it off the ground for shots from above. The cameras, slightly set apart, had to be mechanically pointed together at the subject, then locked into place like an unwieldy set of eyes to help create the 3-D effect.  At $60 million, the 12-minute film was the most expensive frame-for-frame production ever.

Now, five months from its release, Cameron's "Avatar," the first feature film he has directed since "Titanic" (1997), promises to take 3-D cinematography to an unrivaled level, using a more nimble 3-D camera system that he helped invent.  Cameron's heavily hyped return also marks Hollywood's biggest bet yet that 3-D can bolster box office returns. Twentieth Century Fox has budgeted $237 million for the production of "Avatar."  The movie uses digital 3-D technology, which requires audience members to wear polarized glasses. It is a vast improvement on the sometimes headache-inducing techniques that relied on cardboard cutout glasses with red and blue lenses and rose and fell in popularity in the 1950s.  "Avatar" also raises the bar on "performance capture" technology, which creates computerized images from real human action. The movie depicts an ex-soldier's interactions with 10-foot-tall aliens on the luminous planet of Pandora.

"If you know Jim Cameron, it's all about pushing the envelope," said Vince Pace, who helped him develop the 3-D camera system used in "Avatar."  In some of the "Avatar" footage released at Comic-Con, humans filmed with his 3-D camera rig are mixed with the computer-generated images of the movie's avatars -- beings created with mixed human and alien DNA.  Cameron was behind the lens in many scenes that were framed using a "virtual camera" -- a handheld monitor that lets the director walk through the computer-enhanced 3-D scene and record it as if he were the cameraman. The effect on screen is a "shaky cam" effect that makes action sequences seem up close and sometimes focuses the audience's gaze at something in particular.  "It allows Jim to approach this process with the same sensibilities that he would have approached live-action filming," producer Jon Landau said.

The ability to capture human emotions in computerized 3-D has also advanced.  Unlike past methods that captured dots placed on human faces to trace movements that are reconstructed digitally, now each frame is analyzed for facial details such as pores and wrinkles that help re-create a moving computerized image.  "It's all going to advance the whole concept of 3-D one leap higher," said Marty Shindler, a filmmaking consultant with the Shindler Perspective.  Yet even with four years of preparation and the attention surrounding "Avatar," there will not be enough U.S. screens adapted to the technology for a wide release only in 3-D.  Of the 38,800 movie screens in the United States, about 2,500 are capable of showing digital 3-D movies. Theater chains have been adding about 90 to 100 per month this year, but they're still short of the 4,000-plus screens that have been used for major-event movies.

With the conversion costing $100,000, theater owners are wary of moving too quickly, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners.  "The successes of 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and 'Ice Age (Dawn of the Dinosaurs)' in 3-D aside, this is still really early days for this format," he said.  Studios are pushing theater owners to convert more screens, partly because people pay about $2 more per ticket and cram theaters for 3-D releases. Revenue per screen is up to three times higher than for the same movie's 2-D version.  Walt Disney's chief executive, Bob Iger, said this week that his studio has 17 3-D films in development, including "A Christmas Carol." That movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, adopted many of the same performance-capture techniques used in "Avatar" but comes out a month earlier, in November.  Jovan Cohn, a systems engineer from Newport Beach, Calif., watched the "Avatar" preview at Comic-Con and expects to line up with his son for another free look on Aug. 21, when some IMAX theaters will show 15 minutes of the film. Cohn, 43, also plans to catch the full movie's release Dec. 18.  "It takes you into a new world of movie-going and we really think that it's going to be a hit," he said. "No question on that. James Cameron just hit another home run."


James Cameron Pushes Every Boundary For His 'Avatar' Vision
(By Scott Bowles, USA Today, December 11th, 2009)
While shooting a tricky scene of his outer space opus Avatar, director James Cameron needed something to make his actors react as if they were getting pummeled by debris.  Hurling pillows at them wasn't working. Same with wadded paper, pencils, food cartons: Nothing gave his actors that urgent, terrified look he wanted. Cameron disappeared into a prop room and returned with a jousting pole, wrapped in padding. Then he whipped the daylights out of his stars as cameras rolled.  “He was loving it," says Zoe Saldana, the actress on the receiving end of Cameron's zeal. "If you'd walked on set, you would have thought he had gone nuts on us. But he was just a happy kid, playing with one of his toys."

He brings them all to bear in Avatar, Cameron's first feature film since Titanic in 1997. That became the highest-grossing film ever, taking in $1.8 billion worldwide and winning a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture.  When that was your last act, the filmmaker knows, your encore had better be impressive. And Avatar, which opens Dec. 18, comes freighted with all the hope andhand-wringing of a James Cameron film.  It's expensive (by some estimates, the priciest film ever made at $500 million, including marketing), a technological marvel (he designed every plant, animal, weapon and spaceship in the 3-D movie) and long (2½ hours).  Oh, and it might flop with critics.

"It's not really a review movie," Cameron says, not sounding too concerned. "Not like Titanic. It's a populist piece of science-fiction fantasy — not typically the kind of film the reviewers would embrace."  Add to that the secrecy with which Cameron has shrouded his film — there have been virtually no screenings and few trailers — and it's enough to make fans and industry experts apoplectic.  Fans want a Terminator- or Alien-style franchise. Twentieth Century Fox has launched an eponymous ad campaign to ensure the film doesn't become another Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor epic that nearly sunk the studio in 1963. Perhaps most crucial: The film is seen as the best test yet for the public's appetite for 3-D.  "You can't really overestimate how much anticipation there is among people in the business," says Jeff Bock, analyst for the industry tracking Exhibitor Relations. "People have been watching to see what the so-called king of the world was going to do after Titanic. He's told people that this is the future of 3-D, that this is the reason you spend all that money to improve your theaters. If 3-D is supposed to be the savior of modern cinema, Avatar is seen as the Holy Grail."

That kind of hyperbole might unnerve other directors. But not when your films have raked in more than $3 billion worldwide.  "This is old hat," Cameron says. "They've been saying the same things about my movies —Terminator, Aliens, Titanic. Too expensive, too big, too crazy over little details. It doesn't bother me. Crazy is relative."  Maybe obsessive is closer to the point. Avatar, more than any film yet in the 55-year-old's canon, melds his nerd side with his artistic half. In addition to creating the exotic look of the alien world Pandora, Cameron teamed with linguists to create a real language used by the indigenous Na'vi warriors.  "We wanted to 'out-Klingon' Klingon," Cameron says of the fictitious Star Trek language fans have created, complete with grammar and syntax. "The best sci-fi movies immerse the audience in that world until it doesn't seem alien to them."

The film follows an ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) exploring an alien moon for resources to save a dying Earth. War soon breaks out between the humans and the 9-foot blue humanoids, known as Na'vi.  He has been working on Avatar for 4½ years, but the concept has been percolating in Cameron's mind since he was a boy obsessed with sci-fi and the end of the world. He never missed a Twilight Zone and was preoccupied by the Cold War-era pamphlets he found in his parents' Canada home on how to build fallout shelters.  "At least every other day, I was burning through a sci-fi book," he says. "I think the first time I put pen to paper, I was thinking about other worlds. You could say I've been thinking about this movie since I was 8."  It has been a long trip to Pandora. Cameron got his Hollywood break in 1980, when B-movie titan Roger Corman hired him to be a miniature-set builder for Beyond the Stars.

A year later, Cameron directed Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, the filmmaker's only unmitigated flop.  Three years later, he wrote and directed Terminator. His name, and reputation, were suddenly hot.  Sigourney Weaver remembers meeting the young director for Aliens and being impressed by his penchant for letting ordinary people — women, no less — save the day.  Characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator and Ellen Ripley from Aliens could have been fumbled in another filmmaker's hands, she says.  "Jim is one of those men who sees how powerful women are," she says. "He notices real women in the real world doing powerful things."  He also could have a temper. "He throws a thunderbolt," Weaver says. "He's not a mean person, just demanding. He couldn't be more encouraging or supportive to actors."  Says Worthington: "He's known as the ultimate dictator, and he's not. He just knows everyone else's job better than any of us. He demands excellence. If you don't give it to him, you're going to get chewed out. And that's a good thing."

By the time Titanic collected $600 million in the USA in 1997, Cameron had entered a strata "with maybe only one other director there, Steven Spielberg," Bock says. "They both became known as directors who could turn any kind of story into a hit."  Spielberg stayed in movies. Cameron disappeared.  After doing research for The Abyss and Titanic, he became fascinated with deep-sea diving. He abandoned feature filmmaking to lead six underwater expeditions in the next five years.  "I was having a lot of fun doing hard, challenging work," says Cameron, who filmed several documentaries chronicling his dives.  But he wasn't fixated only on the sea. When he wasn't shooting shipwrecks, Cameron was tinkering with new cameras, software and digital equipment for his next film, still undecided.  "I was learning a craft and trade of 3-D production, gearing up" for his next film, still undecided. "Whatever movie I was going to make, it was going to be in 3-D."

That kind of forward thinking is rare even among filmmakers, says friend and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.  "He's simply ahead of everyone else," says Jackson, whose Weta Digital studio in New Zealand handled many of the special-effects shots in the film. "Sometimes, you just nod your head and pretend you understand everything he's saying so you can keep up."  Avatar is nothing if not testimony to Cameron's geekiness. It's filled with 2,500 special-effects shots; nearly two-thirds of Avatar is composed of computer-generated scenes.  For the director, difficulty was the point. "There aren't many examples of fully detailed worlds in the movies," Cameron says. "You've got the Tolkien universe, the Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) universe, the Star Wars universe. You can't compete with that kind of lore, but what we can do is give the illusion that there's that kind of depth and detail."

Of course, there's detail and there's James Cameron detail. He just completed the "Pandora-pedia," a 350-page companion to the film that elaborates on the moon's botany, fauna, history and spacecraft technology.  Cameron's crowning achievement may be the software created for the film that allowed the director to see his actors as computer-rendered characters through his camera lens.

The cast wore bodysuits covered in markers that were captured by 102 cameras in the massive warehouse where Cameron shot the film (the same one where Howard Hughes built aircraft in the 1940s). So instead of seeing a person in a bodysuit, Cameron saw the actor as he or she would appear on screen: as a human-alien hybrid, or avatar.  All of which comes at a cost. The New York Times put the price tag at $500 million, including advertising and promotions. The Wall Street Journal estimated $300 million, without marketing.  Cameron and 20th Century Fox executives aren't saying. Of course, all that could become moot by the time the movie is out, Bock says.  "It's all going to come down to whether he delivers a big movie, and I believe he will," he says. "He's proven people wrong most of his career."  About Avatar's future, Cameron says: "The experience of the film is better than what you think it's going to be. As opposed to a lot of movies that you think are going to be better, but they're not. This film is not like that."

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