The Cannes film festival’s surprise choice of Pixar’s Up as its opening film this May sends a symbolic message. By embracing a 3D film, the world’s most prestigious film festival is underlining the point that 3D is now not only part of the mainstream but that it is respected by programmers and critics too.
Just as Cannes gave feature documentaries a huge boost when it programmed Bowling For Columbine in Competition in 2002, and animation with Shrek in 2001, it is now providing 3D with the same fillip. It will be intriguing next month to see the stars hit the red carpet of the Palais de Cinema in their 3D specs.
Pixar’s presence on the Riviera also begs some questions about the 3D revolution so many have been predicting for so long. Last year, for all the upbeat rhetoric by the likes of James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, it seemed a long way from the thoughts of buyers and sellers attending film markets. Neither Cannes nor Berlin had permanent market facilities for showing 3D films, and in spite of all the projects discussed by sales agents, there were few completed 3D films available to buy.
Where are all the 3D screens?
Meanwhile, the 3D building boom forecast so confidently at ShoWest in 2005, when Cameron, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and Randal Kleiser appeared on stage together in 3D specs, has not yet materialised.
The prediction then was that there would be 2,000 3D screens in the US by 2007. “That was way too ambitious,” says nWave’s Ben Stassen, the Belgian producer-director of 3D animated feature Fly Me To The Moon, released in the US by Summit Entertainment last year. Although the initial push was brisk enough, with Chicken Little released by Disney in the summer of 2005 on 100 3D screens, progress soon slowed. As Stassen puts it: “The disappointment was that between 2006 and 2008, the growth and installation was very much slower than anyone expected.”
It was expensive to install 3D facilities and there was a lack of 3D product. When My Bloody Valentine 3D opened in January this year, there were only around 1,200 3D screens in the US. Since then, however, in spite of the credit crunch, the number of US 3D screens has shot up and Monsters Vs Aliens opened in the US in early April on around 2,000 3D screens. Across the US, in Russia and in Europe, there has been a sudden acceleration in providing 3D facilities. Exhibitors suddenly seemed to have lost their caution about the format.
This year, Jerome Paillard, head of the Cannes Marche, reveals there will be some 3D films screening in the market, including Olivier Parthonnaud’s sci-fi thriller Station 21, made through Australian outfit Courage Films. “The good news from last year is that technology is much easier,” says Paillard. The Marche will primarily be using the XpanD system (see box opposite), which is relatively easy to install in any theatre that already has digital facilities.
However, there are still plenty of thorny issues. For example, in Europe, there is a stand-off between exhibitors and one major US distributor over just who should pay for the 3D specs. Some European exhibitors are refusing to show one of the spring’s big animated releases in 3D because they fear it will lose them money.
The battle is set to move to the US. Up to now, US distributors have picked up the cost of the glasses in US theatres using RealD. But as Twentieth Century Fox prepares to release its first 3D film, Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs, on July 1, it is reported Fox wants the US exhibitors to pay for the disposable glasses.
It is a case of ‘spectacle war’. As Nico Simon, CEO of Benelux-based exhibitor The Utopia Group explains, in the US, cinemas tend to use the RealD system, with what are referred to as ‘passive glasses’. These are disposable and cost relatively little and, until now, the studios have provided them.
“The problem is that cinemas have to install a silver screen, which is not a very good screen for ordinary (2D) projections,” explains Simon, who operates 15 cinemas throughout Benelux and France.
Rather than install the silver screen at great expense and only be able to use it occasionally, many European exhibitors have opted for either the XpanD system with ‘active glasses’ or the Dolby system with ‘special colour-filtering glasses’. The hitch here is that these specs are expensive and non-disposable. Exhibitors do not want to pay for the servicing of these glasses on their own. Some have proposed keeping a portion of the ticket price to cover the cost of the glasses or finding some other way to share this cost with the distributor. When the distributor has refused to pick up any of the expense, the exhibitors are often deciding to show the film in 2D.
“Why the hell should we show the film in 3D when it is less (commercially) interesting to us?” Simon asks. “The studios tell us all the time that the 3D versions do much more (business) but we are not so sure.”
In the UK, the numbers seem to be stacking up: the 3D gross to date for Paramount’s Monsters Vs Aliens is $8.7m (£5.8m), accounting for 50% of its total box office of $17.2m (£11.5m). For Walt Disney’s Bolt in the UK, the 3D version has grossed $10.8m (£7.2m) from 124 screens while the 2D version has taken $16m (£10.7m) from 594 screens.
In Simon’s own cinemas, a regular 2D screening costs $10.60 (EUR8) whereas a 3D screening costs $13.30 (EUR10). Early evidence suggests some families are balking at the extra cost charged for 3D films and are taking the cheaper option.
‘3D cinema is a different language’
There is also evidence Hollywood is, as Stassen puts it, “hedging its bets” when it comes to making 3D films, by releasing them in 2D as well and by failing to explore the full possibilities of the technology. “They (the Americans) are very timid in their use of 3D,” he notes. “They now talk about creating 3D behind the screen, only using the depth behind the screen and not the space in front of the screen.”
This is something the Belgian animator describes disparagingly as “two and a half D”.
“We’re making the same mistake as we did in the 1950s or the late 1970s - that is, making 2D films with 3D perspectives and effects,” he says.
Stassen’s fear is that if audiences do not see a real difference between 3D films and their 2D equivalents, they will not be prepared to spend extra to wear the 3D specs.
“3D cinema is a different language - a new language of cinema. You have to treat films very differently. This is not quite happening right now,” he says. “I’m totally convinced that audiences will not pay 30% more and will not tolerate wearing these glasses if we don’t deliver the goods. If we don’t make films that are drastically different in 3D, people will say 2D works so why bother with 3D?”
Stassen is one of the few Europeans making independent 3D films which are available to buyers at markets like Cannes and Berlin (he will be showing footage of his new 3D project Around The World In 50 Years during Cannes). However, he predicts 3D will further strengthen the studios: “I see 3D potentially as a way for Hollywood to gain even more dominance worldwide in distribution because most of the 3D products right now are generated in the US.”
After all the delays and false starts, the 3D revolution so confidently predicted in 2005 certainly seems to be under way. As ever, the challenge for the Europeans is not to be left behind.
COMPETING 3D FORMATS
Uses a special projector that requires a silver screen (one that has been coated with aluminium metallic paint) for the effect to work properly.
Take-up: RealD was first off the blocks and therefore had a market advantage, especially in the US.
Pros: ‘Free’ glasses. Distributors have been providing disposable glasses to exhibitors.
Cons: Some doubt this advantage can be maintained, especially as more and more 3D films come down the pipeline and 3D becomes more popular in the home. It is hardly environmentally friendly to throw away millions of pairs of glasses that could be reused. There is also a lack of flexibility. Silver screen is expensive and some exhibitors say it does not work well for 2D because it produces a ‘hot spot’. And a pair of glasses costs around $0.75 to produce.
Slovenian and US-based company which uses ‘active’ glasses to do all the work. No silver screen is required.
Pros: Quality and flexibility. It is easy to install in theatres already fitted with digital, uses a normal screen and exhibitors say it is the easiest of the three to switch between 2D and 3D.
Cons: Glasses are non-disposable so are expensive for the exhibitor to service. Some exhibitors want to split the cost of the servicing or are refusing to show the film in 3D.
Dolby 3D Digital Cinema
Like XpanD, the Dolby system is flexible and can be used for both 3D and 2D projections, utilising a standard digital cinema projector with a filter accessory and colour-filtering glasses.
Pros: Dolby is an established brand, trusted by exhibitors. The lightweight, reusable glasses feature ‘passive technology’ that requires no batteries or charging.
Cons: Although Dolby claims the reusable glasses are cost-effective, in effect the non-disposable glasses are expensive to service. As with XpanD, some exhibitors want to split the cost of the glasses servicing or are refusing to show the film in 3D.
IN THE WORKS
Selected international 3D projects
- Germany’s first 3D movie, Alex Winter’s horror film The Gate, is set to shoot in Cologne later this year. It is a co-production between Andras Hamori’s Los Angeles-based H20 Motion Pictures and Cologne’s MMC Independent.
- French film-making brothers Jean-Jacques and Francois Mantello are putting the finishing touches to the $13m Oceans 3D: Into The Deep, which follows a female sea turtle as she heads to her birthplace to lay her eggs. Wild Bunch is selling the film.
- Spain’s Dygra Films is in production on the 3D Holy Night! which sees the characters of a nativity scene declare war on their Christmas-tree counterparts.
- Danny and Oxide Pang are in pre-production on the $4.5m 3D horror film The Child’s Eye. Universe is selling the film.
- In Australia, Zack Snyder’s animated owl movie Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, produced by Sydney-based Animal Logic, will be the country’s first 3D project. It will be released worldwide in 2010 by Warner Bros.
- Dino Mom is an English-language animation produced by South Korea’s Toiion Inc and Motif Production about three children who go 65 million years back in time. Myriad Pictures has international rights to the film, which is scheduled to wrap at the end of 2009.
- Shax France is working on the $16m 3D animation Louis La Chance, which is set against the backdrop of the 1934 Monaco Grand Prix.
- At Cannes, Nicolas Chartier’s Voltage Pictures will be selling Richard Gabai’s digital 3D family film Call Of The Wild, about a young girl who rescues a wounded wolf.
- South African animation house Triggerfish Animation’s family tale Zambezia, set against a spectacular waterfall in the Zambezi River Valley, is being sold by Cinema Management Group (CMG).
- The Norwegian Film Institute is backing Rasmus A Sivertsen’s 3D animated adventure Pelle The Police Car Goes Bathing.
- Warner Bros India is working on the 3D animation Sultan The Warrior with India’s Ocher Studios.