In 1953, studio chief Jack Warner implored Alfred Hitchcock to work in the new format of 3D for his film Dial M For Murder. Hollywood had just introduced the colour stereoscopic photographic technology to fend off the pervasive reach of television. But by the time of the release, the 3D phenomenon had largely passed. Outside of a few major markets, Hitchcock's film was shown in the traditional two-dimension format.

As time passed, few appeared to lament 3D - until now. Suddenly Hitchcock's claim to being the only heavyweight director with a 3D credit is over. Academy-award winning directors James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson are among the new apostles of the format, with Cameron's futuristic epic Avatar already being talked up as revolutionary art.

Avatar's scheduled December 2009 release by Twentieth Century Fox is the most talked about of a dozen or so high-profile 3D projects (see sidebar, right). The US studios are also using the new 3D technology to develop further revenue streams for library titles: the Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies and the Toy Story films are being retrofitted in 3D for forthcoming theatrical re-issues.

Driven in part by the zeal of co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks typifies the confidence surrounding the format. At the Cinema Expo conference in Amsterdam, Katzenberg insisted the new 3D tools are not gimmicks. 'Digital 3D can create a sense of depth that pulls audiences into the story, making the whole experience more visceral and heightening the feeling of the movie.'

DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar have both announced all their animation projects will now be storyboarded, conceived and authored exclusively in 3D, beginning with Monsters Vs Aliens, due out in March 2009.

'Art strives to take you to a different place emotionally or physically,' says Jim Mainard, head of production development at DreamWorks Animation. 'We're finally at a place where the expectations of our audiences have come together with the technological feasibility of providing a new experience.'

Prohibitive costs

3D has three contemporary forms: animation, live action and capture, which involves the new generation of digital cameras (such as Zemeckis' The Polar Express and Beowulf) or converting to 3D in post-production by adding dimensionality to the frame (such as The Nightmare Before Christmas).

New Line's Journey To The Center Of The Earth has broken new ground as the first live-action film to have been authored in 3D. This trend will continue with Jackson and Spielberg's trilogy of Tintin movies, which are being shot with motion-capture digital 3D technology.

Working in 3D adds about 15%-20% in production costs, or up to around $15m for an animated project. Though the available sample is small, the evidence to date suggests the extra money is justified. US theatres playing the 3D version of Journey To The Center Of The Earth outsold traditional projection by a ratio of nearly four to one during the film's opening weekend, July 11-13.

'The more data that points to this (success) happening, the more other parts of the world will say, 'The economics of this are very strong,'' says Michael V Lewis, CEO of Real D, a US company that licences 3D projection equipment.

Still, more questions than answers remain. The biggest potential roadblock is the near-prohibitive cost of converting the theatres to 3D digital. At present it costs $15,000-$25,000 to make the conversion on the digital projectors.

In the US, Real D equipment dominates market share, with around 96%, while Dolby Digital is installed in about 75 theatres. But of the country's 35,000 or so screens, only around 5,000 are digitally equipped, of which around 1,200 are 3D digital capable, with a further 120 Imax screens dedicated to showing 3D work.

Money well spent

The international take-up of 3D distribution has been slow, with most exhibitors heavily dependent on US studios supplying them with titles. However, at Cinema Expo, Dolby Laboratories announced it has sold more than 350 of its 3D digital systems to exhibitors and equipment distributors across Europe, Asia and North and South America.

In the UK, multiplex operators Odeon and Cineworld have signed deals with Real D to install its equipment. To date, 30 of Cineworld's total 74 UK cinemas are 3D compatible, with more in the works, and Lewis says his company plans to furbish 500, or one-third, of Odeon's 1,500 screens for 3D digital projection.

Independent UK exhibitor City Screen Picturehouse Cinemas is also installing five digital projectors that will be 3D compatible, even though managing director Lyn Goleby admits she could have 'built cinemas for less money'. She would not be drawn on the exact costs but admitted it was in the high six figures. But it looks like money well spent.

'In the UK for Journey, the 3D venues took about 25%-30% more than the standard format,' says Vincent Jervis, finance director for City Screen.

Music films Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds Concert Tour and U2 3D have also been performing well at 3D-compatible cinemas across the globe.

International build

On the production and distribution side, 3D is also slowly growing internationally. The UK's Film & Music Entertainment recently struck a deal with Finland's MRP Matila Rohr Productions to work on the 3D epic Underwater Iceland; the Norwegian Film Institute is backing Rasmus A Sivertsen's 3D animated adventure Pelle The Police Car Goes Bathing; and Warner Bros India has signed a multi-picture deal with Ocher Studios (its first project is the 3D animation Sultan The Warrior). Meanwhile in Japan, Mamoru Oshii's The Sky Crawlers will employ 3D animation.

At Cannes, Los Angeles-based Cinema Management Group picked up worl wide rights to Shax France's $16m 3D animated feature Louis La Chance. The co-production with LuxAnimation is set against the backdrop of the 1934 Monaco Grand Prix.

But French audiences, like the rest of the world, want to see good films, not formats, argues Jean Labadie, the former BAC Films founder turned independent distributor at Le Pacte. '3D is interesting for the audience as long as the film is interesting. Otherwise it's just a trick that won't go very wide.'