Wednesday, January 28, 2009

3-D Continues to Become the Future Movie Standard

There have been two great revolutionary events in the history of film. The first was the transition from silent movies to synchronised sound that happened in the early 1920s, and the second was the use of color in the 1930s. Now more than seventy-five years later, the movie industry is entering the third period of revolutionary change with the switch to 3D.

Thanks to the proliferation of home theaters, movies-on-demand and portable video players, moviegoers have fewer reasons to actually go to a theater to see a movie. Filmmakers and studios have decided the solution is to begin producing movies in 3-D. Disney and Pixar announced that it will release all of its films in 3-D, starting with Bolt, which opened in November. Dreamworks Animation says that by 2009 all of its movies will be released in 3-D. James Cameron is working on big-budget 3-D sci-fi flick called Avatar, and George Lucas is working on remastering all the Star Wars movies in 3-D.

Analysts predict that there will be a $25 bilion 3-D market by 2012 according to a new report from Piper Jaffray. The projected growth amounts to a compound annual growth rate of about 50%, with the analysts forecasting a $5.5 billion 3-D market this year. The technology could mean a boon for the U.S. boxoffice, which the Piper Jaffray team expects to go from flat in 2008 and 2009 to an average gain of 12% year-over-year in 2010 and 2011.

The value for studios is that the technology can't easily be replicated in home theaters (yet); and moviegoers are still willing to pay a premium for 3-D films. Unlike 3-D films of the 1950s, the new wave of 3-D pictures don't blur and they don't cause headaches. In basic terms, a 3-D film is shot in two frames -- one for the right eye and once for the left eye. The projector buffers the left and right streams and projects them in alternation at 144 frames per second, using a "triple flash" technique that shows each frame three times in order to smooth out the picture. The RealD 3-D system also requires theaters to install a special silver screen to maintain the polarization of the image.

While studios move ahead with 3-D production, only about 1,000 out of 38,900 screens in the United States are 3-D.
In order to install a 3-D system, theaters must have digital projectors. And at the moment, there are only 4,600 digital projectors in the United States, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade to digital projectors, and $20,000 to $50,000 more to install a 3-D system. It's a rich investment, and theater owners may not see much of a return on it: Studios, on average, make 55 percent of ticket sales, leaving just 45 percent for the theater owner.

In four or five years, 3-D is expected to become somewhat standard. It may only be a matter of time before 3-D hits the home theater, which would leave theater owners back where they started. Some speculate that 3-D will penetrate home theaters in only four or five years' time. By then, to get viewers to suspend disbelief and become part of the movie, TV, or game experience, it will have to be in 3-D.

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