3-D Movies: The 'Monster' That Will Save Hollywood?

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

"These are dark times," growls the voice of Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W.R. Monger in "Monsters vs. Aliens," the heavily hyped 3-D animated kid flick from DreamWorks Animation arriving in theaters today. "The odds are against us. We need a Hail Mary pass."

The movie industry might not need anything quite so desperate as a Hail Mary pass -- after all, box-office receipts are up this year -- but Hollywood's embrace of 3-D technology is as much a business decision as a moviemaking decision. In an effort to keep fans coming to theaters for an experience that they can't get at home, the studios are releasing a slew of movies in 3-D this year, although they are behind schedule in a multimillion-dollar effort to equip theaters with the projectors necessary to show them.

For an extra $3 to $5, moviegoers at certain theaters will get a pair of recyclable polarized glasses that make the images pop from the screen. In "Monsters vs. Aliens," PG-rated carnage is wrought by a likable crew of monsters, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett and Hugh Laurie, who scramble to save the world from a bumbling force of aliens armed with superior firepower and bad intentions. The effects especially kick in as the Golden Gate Bridge is torn apart and Witherspoon's character skates away at breakneck speeds down the streets of San Francisco to elude an alien robot. When the president, voiced by Stephen Colbert, consults with his aides in a war-room bunker, viewers may feel as if they are at the table.

There are more than a dozen high-profile 3-D movies coming this year. Directors James Cameron and Tim Burton have live-action projects in the works, and upcoming sequels of the animated hits "Toy Story" and "Ice Age" will feature the revamped technology, as will "Shrek 4" next year. This summer, Pixar will make its 3-D debut with its latest feature, called "Up."

No studio is betting more heavily on the 3-D update than DreamWorks Animation. Starting with "Monsters vs. Aliens," every release from the studio from now on will be created with the technology -- though, for the foreseeable future, these films will also be released in 2-D to accommodate the vast majority of theaters that don't yet have the new projectors. The studio's move will cost it an extra $15 million per film, said DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, during a trip to Washington to show off the movie.

With the advent of high-end home theaters, Katzenberg said, Hollywood needs something extra to grab the attention of all those consumers who may otherwise be more inclined to stay home and enjoy a bag of popcorn while parked in front of their plasma-screen TVs and surround-sound stereo equipment.

"We've lost many moviegoers to the comfort of home because what we offer isn't exceptional enough," he said. Eventually, 3-D technology may reach the home, but consumer electronics companies haven't yet settled on the necessary standards to make that happen. In the meantime, 3-D technology is having a tough enough time getting into your local multiplex.

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, theaters showing 3-D-formatted movies are bringing in two to four times as much in revenue as their 2-D counterparts. Even so, the rollout of 3-D-compatible digital projectors has been slow. Last year, when DreamWorks started talking up "Monsters vs. Aliens," Katzenberg expressed hopes that the 3-D version of the movie would debut on 5,000 screens. As the movie gets set to launch today, it will appear in 3-D on only about 2,000. There are approximately 20 equipped theaters within a 50-mile radius of Washington. (To find a theater showing movies in 3-D near you visit

The digital projector needed to display a movie in 3-D costs more than twice as much as the $30,000 of older film projectors still used in most theaters. Before the current economic crisis, studios and theaters had arrived at a deal to share the upgrade costs. At the moment, that rollout is at something of a standstill.

"The studios and the theaters have an agreement in principle, but you may have noticed that the credit markets are a little tight right now," said Doug Creutz, an industry analyst with Cowen and Co. "It's, literally, a matter of where the money is going to come from."

In the meantime, analysts say they expect that studios such as DreamWorks will probably profit from expanding into the new format anyway, if modestly. The extra $15 million per picture for 3-D is a comparatively small investment, considering that the studio's films, such as "Shrek the Third" and "Kung Fu Panda," typically bring in hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I don't doubt that [the studios] are going to make their money back, the expenses are that low," said Jessica Reif-Cohen, an analyst with Banc of America Securities-Merrill Lynch Research.

As to whether going 3-D is a worthwhile investment for the average moviegoer, that's still open to debate. At a promotional screening of "Monsters vs. Aliens" at Washington's Regal Gallery Place theater, the response was mixed.

Washington resident Brenda Jones said she usually prefers to save money by attending matinees when she takes her two godsons to the movies, and she's not terribly interested in more expensive options. "I liked it," she said of the new DreamWorks movie. "But with the economy the way it is, I'd probably stick with the 2-D version."

Just a few steps away, one young dad raved that 3-D films would be bringing him into the theater from now on.

"It was just phenomenal," said C. Payne Lucas Jr., a home theater buff who attended the screening with his daughter. "Anyb ody who likes [high definition] is going to love 3-D," he said. "It's just too bad all theaters aren't like this."

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