A Battle in the Third Dimension: Studios vs. Theater Owners

More important to Katzenberg and executives at DreamWorks were the audience survey results from some of the most extensive polling in the studio's history: Though they made up only 28% of the theaters, 3-D-equipped movie houses made up 56% of business.

About 38% of the audience said they saw the movie in 2-D because they couldn't find a 3-D screen.

"Imagine what those numbers would have been like if we had the number of 3-D screens we should have," Katzenberg says.

Many moviegoers are already converts. Jessica Kay of Northridge, Calif., drove her two boys 25 miles to see the film in 3-D at Universal Studio's high-tech Citywalk Stadium theaters.

"Kids expect things to look as good as their video games," says Kay, 47. "It's worth the drive, even if traffic is a pain."

For other movie fans, though, the hullabaloo is a mystery.

"Personally, I don't see the fuss," says James Ballantine of Culver City, Calif. "I don't like the glasses. It's too gimmicky."

The sentiment won't slow big 3-D projects, including James Cameron's Avatar, due Dec. 18, and Shrek Goes Fourth, slated for May 21, 2010.

Among industry professionals, there's little debating the advantage of 3-D and the digital movie experience. The 3-D films of today are worlds beyond the gimmicky trend of the '50s, with such titles as Gorilla at Large and Cat Women of the Moon.

Digital projectors eliminate the worry over film degradation because movies are held on a hard drive, and they allow theaters to simulcast concerts and sporting events.

But both remain nascent and expensive technologies. A digital projector alone can cost $75,000, and the cost is more than double for 3-D equipment. So far, about 6,000 of the nation's 39,000 movie screens are digital, and 2,000 are 3-D capable.

The numbers are growing, but the push to get theater owners in line has gotten testy. Katzenberg has been outspoken in his criticism of those reluctant to join the revolution.

Earlier this week, John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, shot back. "With all due respect to my friend Jeffrey Katzenberg, who keeps bashing the cinema experience," Fithian said, "moviegoing has never been as exciting, as comfortable and convenient as it is today."

Still, he acknowledges that 3-D is a force all theater owners will eventually face. "This is a game changer," he says. "And there aren't too many of those in our business."

The last one?


Indeed, the debate over 3-D harks back to the battle over movies with sound in the late 1920s. Purists, including Charlie Chaplin, believed that sound would rob films of their imaginative quality. He refused to use dialogue in his 1931 classic City Lights as a protest to the movement, even though talkies had become the norm by then.

Lynne McQuaker of the seven-theater Studio Movie Grill company in Dallas doubts the battle will ever be that pitched again. If anything, she says, theater owners will be the agents of change.

Her theater chain, for instance, has not only gone digital, but also grills dinner to order for customers. When Sex and the City made its debut last year, the chain mixed 30 gallons of the show's signature drink, Cosmopolitans, and sold every last drop, she says.

"You have to be willing to do just about anything," she says. "We're competing with too many alternatives to stand still. Even if it costs some money."

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