At the 3D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles this week, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg again made the case for the enormous potential that 3D cinema offers the industry.

Already 2009 is shaping up to be the key year for the technology; a total of 15 3D presentations are scheduled, including James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar and Disney's A Christmas Carol (the latter is the first film slated as part of a five-picture deal with Imax).

Both films are scheduled for a December 2009 release, at which time the 'US market will have reached relative maturity', according to Screen Digest's senior analyst Charlotte Jones, who spoke at the summit.

But can the present number of little more than 2,000 3D screens worldwide support this move towards unlocking the potential of the format, and build the momentum needed to deliver 10,000 3D screens by 2012, as Jones expects to see'

Demand led

There is evidently a demand for films on digital screens and specifically in 3D. Where these films are shown, the screen average can be double or even triple that of a standard screen. But with an ever-increasing slate of 3D films, the market runs the risk of becoming saturated. 'We will soon reach the point where there are two 3D film releases a month,' says David Hancock, head of film and cinema at Screen Digest.

He suggests a wide 3D release in North America would require 2,000 screens, whereas the UK would need 300-400. The current number of screens - 1,525 in the US and approximately 70-90 in the UK - has some way to go to reach this point. 'We haven't got enough screens for one wide (3D) release, let alone two or more competing for screens,' he says.

The 3D cinema rollout, particularly outside North America, has been sluggish, and may slow further in the current economic climate. In spite of the apparent enthusiasm for 3D, the issues raised, such as digital standards and the additional costs of the 3D systems, are worth consideration.

Phil Clapp, CEO of the UK's Cinema Exhibitors Association, highlights the central issue: 'The bottom line is that the number of 3D screens is nowhere near what the studios and the distributors would like, yet the cost of digital screen projectors is still the main obstacle for exhibitors wanting to switch'

While the new generation of 3D productions adds further incentive to upgrade, the impact of 3D cinema may not yet be 'sufficient to alter the balance in favour of switching', Clapp says.

He also notes some of the major exhibitors will switch a number of their screens to 3D ahead of the release of titles such as DreamWorks Animation's Monsters Vs Aliens (due for release in March), with digital screens in their own right taking a back seat as exhibitors push for 3D screens and the higher revenues associated with them.

The issue appears to rest on having enough 3D releases on the schedules, which in turn will encourage exhibitors and distributors to convert enough screens to support the schedule. The balance could be difficult but, as Screen Digest's Hancock points out, there is too much riding on 3D for it to 'fall apart'.

He indicates the key turning point for the balance will be Twentieth Century Fox's release of Avatar in December: 'Avatar will be the BC/AD of the 3D cinema world. It will mark the change from the old models to the new.'

So 2009 will be the year 3D cinema has to establish itself as the growing force in the industry, and with a relatively hefty slate of product on offer it will need the support of distributors and exhibitors and their commitment towards 3D screens.