'How to Train Your Dragon,' 'Clash of the Titans' clash for 3-D screens

READY TO SOAR? Screens may be scarce for "Dragon."
READY TO SOAR? Screens may be scarce for "Dragon." (Dreamworks Animation Skg Via Associated Press)

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By Richard Verrier and Ben Fritz
Sunday, March 21, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- In the wake of the blockbuster "Avatar," Hollywood's obsession with 3-D has hit a roadblock.

Paramount Pictures is using high-pressure tactics against theaters to book DreamWorks Animation's upcoming big-budget 3-D film, "How to Train Your Dragon," onto scarce 3-D screens around the country, according to industry executives. "Dragon," opening March 26, will be going head to head against the swords-and-sandal 3-D picture "Clash of the Titans," from Warner Bros., which opens a week later, and Disney's 3-D "Alice in Wonderland," still drawing audiences and expected to remain in theaters for several more weeks.

Paramount Pictures is telling theaters that if they don't show the upcoming DreamWorks-produced "Dragon" on a 3-D screen, then it will withhold from the theater a 2-D version of the movie to play instead, according to four theater industry executives, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Many multiplexes only have a single 3-D screen, so not having a conventional version of the highly anticipated DreamWorks family film to play on their other screens would severely affect ticket sales.

"The message is: If you have one 3-D screen available and you don't play ["Dragon"], they're not going to give you the version in 2-D," one California theater operator said. "It's an underhanded threat." Studios are also engaged in the mogul equivalent of hand-to-hand combat over scarce 3-D screens.

Last month, DreamWorks Animation SKG's chief executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Hollywood's biggest champions of 3-D filmmaking, fired off an e-mail to Barry Meyer, chief executive of Warner Bros., over the studio's decision to convert "Clash of the Titans" to 3-D from 2-D and open it only a week after "Dragon" was set to debut in theaters.

Disney, meanwhile, is pressing theaters to continue playing "Alice," which so far has racked up more than $215 million in domestic ticket sales. Warner Bros. is aggressively lobbying theaters to forego "Dragon" in order to book "Titans" the next week, according to people familiar with the situation. The Warner Bros. picture is on track for a strong opening of about $50 million, according to market surveys.

A Paramount spokeswoman declined to comment about the studio's efforts to place "How to Train Your Dragon" on 3-D screens.

The jockeying among studios underscores how much is at stake with their costly 3-D bets in the aftermath of "Avatar," which has sent Hollywood scrambling to stud release schedules with the splashy special-effects films. A 3-D movie adds at least $10 million to the cost of a conventional 2-D production, making it crucial that films land on 3-D screens where studios recapture their investment through higher ticket prices.

The three largest U.S. theater circuits recently secured $660 million in financing that would double the number of digital 3-D screens, but it will be months before the technology is installed, causing an acute shortage. There are about 3,500 3-D screens in the United States and Canada, less than 10 percent of the total. That's not enough to accommodate two 3-D movies at the same time, let alone three.

The problem is acute for smaller regional theater chains that often have just one 3-D screen in a multiplex, forcing them into a tough decision, potentially alienating a studio upon which they rely for movies.

Nonetheless, with audiences showing a preference to see spectacles like "Avatar" in 3-D and ticket surcharges boosting revenues, studios are teeing up one 3-D film after another. Nineteen 3-D movies are scheduled in theaters this year, up from 14 in 2009.

-- Los Angeles Times


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