Can technical innovation save the movie theatre as it faces up to a period of extreme competition'

Technology has, of course, fundamentally changed the fortunes of the business before. On October 6, 1927, the talking pictures revolution was launched with The Jazz Singer at Los Angeles' Tower Theater.

Sound could not lay claim to be the medium's salvation, however. Film-going was already the most popular entertainment outside the home and the addition of words and music was an enhancement to a thriving medium.

Cinema didn't need saving but eight decades on there is a stronger argument that innovation is a necessity. More people now watch films in formats and delivery systems (eg DVD, online and TV) other than the one designed for the optimum experience.

The big push

The major production companies are pushing 3D hard as the cure for all economic maladies, and more than two dozen stereoscopic features are scheduled for release in 2010. With the exception of a handful of projects, they are animated features from such industry heavyweights as Pixar and DreamWorks Animation and include new editions of Shrek, Toy Story and Ice Age. The exceptions include at least one concert film, several horror titles and James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar, slotted for Christmas 2009.

The last 3D frenzy spawned roughly 50 movies but peaked and fizzled out between 1953 and 1955. It's no wonder theatre owners are sceptical the new batch of films adds up to a financial panacea.

Talkies, after all, didn't establish themselves overnight. Many thought it a passing fancy. Studios hedged bets, theatres converted with caution and it took three years to shake down rival delivery systems and establish a standard.

About 1,200 North American sites can screen digital 3D. There are even fewer internationally, perhaps because virtually all upcoming 3D features are produced by US majors.

Last weekend the Belgian 3D animation Fly Me To The Moon debuted in 452 North American theatres, and its opening weekend gross of $2m generated a respectable but hardly staggering $4,500 theatre average. The February release of the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds Concert Tour in 3D that grossed $65m in North America (and an additional $5.3m internationally) was initially viewed as a commercial phenomenon but on reflection pundits wondered whether a 2D conventional release in 3,000 theatres might have generated a comparable box office to its 650 3D playdates.

The cost to convert a single screen to 3D can run to $50,000 and although money is a factor, content is the major concern. Theatre owners don't believe family animated films or genre fare such as My Bloody Valentine 3D or Piranha 3D will attract one more patron than a regular version would. Right now 3D is a gimmick with no guarantee of quality... and until there's proof to the contrary, who can quarrel with their reticence'