The Japanese film industry has dubbed 2009 “year zero” for 3D with high-profile releases and new screens expected to finally kick-start local interest in the format.

It is hoped the country’s first live-action 3D feature - Takashi Shimizu’s horror-thriller The Shock Labyrinth - and the arrival of Monsters Vs Aliens, currently the most popular 3D film globally, will capture the imagination of local cinema-goers.

Paramount Pictures Japan announced last week that Monsters Vs Aliens will open on about 300-plus screens on July 15, with about a third of those in the 3D format. It will be the territory’s widest 3D release to date.

The growth of 3D in Japan has been hampered by a shortage of 3D format screens and a lack of government support. Exhibitors have also been wary of investing in upgrades as cinema admissions are currently flat.

Last October, the release of Journey To The Center Of The Earth, which was only able to open on 53 out of its 104 screens in 3D, signalled a desperate need for expansion, which is beginning slowly.

Until the start of this year, Warner-Mycal cinemas were leading the way, offering 3D screens at 40 locations, but Toho, Japan’s most powerful distributor, has now begun to convert its sites to digital. The first phase, including 47 screens, will be complete by this autumn and it plans to convert its portfolio of 553 screens by 2012.

Meanwhile, Imax and Tokyu 109 Cinemas have opened 3D-equipped Imax Digital systems at three sites. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is set for a day-and-date on July 15 and will be the first movie to be released on Imax 3D in Japan.

A raft of Hollywood releases, including 20th Fox’s Avatar (in December), Disney’s Bolt, Pixar’s Up (which will receive a wider launch than Monsters Vs Aliens), Toy Story 3 and Alice In Wonderland (in 2010), are also expected to drive interest, although Japanese cinema-goers favour local releases.

Prior to The Shock Labyrinth, Toei will release a 20-minute theatrical short of its Samurai Sentai Shinkenger TV series on August 8, the territory’s first 3D live-action short.

It is also hoped that Imagica, the country’s largest post-production house, will encourage the conversion of 2D films with its new suite of conversion, editing and screening facilities, which it launched in April. Sony PCL, Japan’s biggest production house and a subsidiary of Sony Group, also unveiled new 3D facilities on June 5.

Animation drives 3D growth

  • Up has taken $151.9m at the worldwide box office to date following its May 29 release. It tells the story of a 78-year-old man who ties balloons to his house and flies away with a young stowaway on board.
  • Monsters Vs Aliens, about a young woman who turns into a giant monster, has taken $364.3m worldwide at the box office since its March release.
  • Bolt has taken a worldwide gross of $292m at the box office. The 3D film features the canine star of a fictional sci-fi/action show who believes his powers are real.