LOS ANGELES -- If luminary directors George Lucas and James Cameron get their way, a new wave of three-dimensional movies may soon replace goofy, 1950s flicks like "Bwana Devil" that played to bug-eyed audiences wearing blue and red glasses.
"Titanic" captain Cameron, "Stars Wars" master Lucas and even "Lord of the Rings" head hobbit Peter Jackson want fans to forget those odd spectacles.
This new 3D wave, they say, converts their old titles to in-your-face entertainment that may reignite box office fire for movies being re-released, and it puts audiences directly in the action of new films like Cameron's 2007 science fiction adventure "Battle Angel."
The new 3D movies do not replace traditional films. Audiences will get two versions of the same movie for different experiences, and studios and theaters get two movies to market. Glasses are needed to view the new 3D, although the cardboard cut-outs with blue and red lenses are replaced by plastic frames and clear lenses.
Behind the push for 3D is a major industry overhaul called "digital cinema," which means projecting movies onscreen from digital files, as opposed to filmstrip and showing them with projection systems that cost up to $100,000 a unit to install.
Digital Cinema is supported by Hollywood's major studios who will sharply cut film-releasing costs because they no longer have to ship thousands of filmstrips around the world. Rather, they can transmit cheap digital files via satellite that are then stored on computer networks inside the theaters.
But the transition will be expensive -- perhaps costing as much as $3.6 billion over the next several years, industry watchers said.
Theater owners are demanding the studios pay, and they want new types of content and movies to help pack houses for the digital cinema systems. The directors say they have one answer -- updating an old idea, 3D.
BACK TO THE FUTURE, AGAIN
"We're making these movies, and we believe in the technology," Cameron said at a recent convention of theater owners in Las Vegas called ShoWest. "People are seeking out that premium 3D experience."
Lucas, whose "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" hits theaters next month, wants to re-release the entire "Star Wars" series in 3D starting in 2007, and Peter Jackson hinted that a re-release "Lord of the Rings" movies might be coming.
Three-dimensional movies date back to the origins of filmmaking before the 20th century, but it was in the 1950s that the 3D gimmick hit big in Hollywood. Showman Sidney W. Pink was among the vanguard of filmmakers in the arena, producing 1952's "Bwana Devil" about man-eating lions.
One year later, Warner Bros. sat Vincent Price in audience laps in the 3D version of "House of Wax." It racked up $23.75 million at box office, a major haul at the time.
Warner Bros. is among the backers of new 3D after seeing a small box office bonanza with 2004's 3D version of Christmas movie "The Polar Express" at giant screen IMAX theaters.
"When you have a big movie like 'The Polar Express' and you convert it to an IMAX presentation, you also add to the event itself. (Creating an event) is another way of helping market a film," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros head of distribution.
"Polar Express" brought in $282 million at theaters worldwide, and $45 million of that was at IMAX.
SHOW ME THE TECHNOLOGY
While old 3D movies with the funky blue-and-red glasses often made audiences dizzy, the new technology that converts 2D film to 3D digital pictures has reduced side effects, said Charles Swartz, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California.
Swartz said that some technical issues remain, but he also believes the time is ripe for a renaissance. "When you look at the movies that are most successful today like 'Spiderman 2' they tend to be movies in which there is a lot of opportunity to use depth to make the movie even more compelling."
In-Three Inc is one of the companies that converts a 2D feature film into 3D at a basic cost of $4.5 million per movie. The cost changes based on the complexity of the feature.
Michael Kaye, chief executive of In-Three thinks 3D will become a chief catalyst to the rollout of digital cinema systems because it changes the focus for theater owners from spending money on the systems to making money from them.
"The focus is really on the content that uses digital cinema to get it on screen." said Kaye. "Exhibitors have all said this (3D) was the first reason they had to go digital."
Another company behind the 3D push, called Real D, has convinced Mann Theatres to install their 3D delivery system at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre complex in Hollywood.
"3D is going to succeed this time" because of new digital production and releasing, said Real D chief Michael Lewis.
Cameron obviously agrees. At ShoWest, he had this to say to thousands of theater owners. "I'm giving you guys plenty of warning," he said. "You've got two years to get ready."
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