The battle over 3D glasses

Columns

Key phrases in the motion picture industry like “globalization” and “digitization” have been overtaken by “stabilization,” as that is where many of the media conglomerate executives feel the economy is heading. Comments like “The worst is over” and “There’s light at the end of the tunnel” abound, and with box office up by roughly 15 percent so far in 2009, the rest of the year looks very rosy.

The summer season has started and by the time our June issue is out, Angels & Demons, Termination Salvation and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian will have opened. If they perform like Star Trek and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, then the industry is in for a really big summer. And with at least ten 3D movies to be released by year’s end—culminating with James Cameron’s Avatar—it could be another record year for the industry despite the recession and the swine flu scare.

Yet with all this positive news, the industry seems headed for a major blowout over the cost of 3D glasses and who is going to pay for them. The brouhaha began with the announcement by 20th Century Fox that they would not pay the cost to supply theatres with 3D glasses to support their upcoming 3D movies. Although quite a roar was heard around the industry, the issue ebbed quickly when several major exhibitors stated that if that happened, they would only play the movies in 2D.

So is this an issue any longer? Not presently, but we all know that the situation will rear its head again in the not too distant future. The studios are not in business to subsidize equipment going into movie theatres but have reluctantly done so in order to get the digital-cinema rollout going. With the economy in bad shape, the studios are pushing back from this original decision and once there is saturation within the major exhibition circuits, the virtual-print-fee deals will disappear as quickly as they surfaced. We believe the same course will be followed when it comes to 3D glasses.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are four 3D systems in the market today and 3D glasses are not the same from one system to the other. In a perfect world, the situation could be better controlled if all the 3D systems were able to use the same glasses and perhaps one format eventually won out—just as VHS triumphed over Betamax. Staying in this perfect-world setting a while longer, ideally the 3D glasses should be more durable, able to be cleaned with a soft cloth, and placed in a carrying case and be used over and over.

One goes out to play tennis or golf and brings one’s own equipment. With the proliferation of 3D theatres, studios will produce more 3D films and patrons will be more apt to own their own 3D glasses and carry them to the theatres each time they go to view a 3D film. This would eliminate the need for distribution or exhibition to pay for the glasses and a profit could be anticipated on the sale of the glasses.

Sound farfetched? Think back to when you were much younger and frequented bowling alleys or pool halls. Everyone would come and use the bowling balls and pool cues supplied by the facility. Today, you are in the minority if you don’t own your own ball or stick. Just think of the designs that could be created by Dior, Calvin Klein, Gucci or Prada.

This is not a fad. 3D is real. The box-office grosses justify the investment by movie operators and by the studios, With the credit markets expected to open up in late June, we are going to witness one of the quickest transformations to ever happen in the movie business. The 6,000 digital screens in the U.S. will jump to 25,000 within the next five years. And every theatre will have a minimum of two or three 3D screens in their complexes.
Perhaps this was best summarized recently by Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group: “In the last 80 years of filmmaking, innovation is usually a fad until a few things happen. One, people look beyond the technology and they lose themselves in the rich stories. Two, the technology is available enough for everyone to enjoy. And three, there’s a string of proven successes to justify the cost associated with the big paradigm shift. Today is an exciting time for theatrical, because all three boxes are coming into alignment.”



Sony’s Classic Duo
A student of the independent motion picture business is keenly aware of the ups and downs and changes that occur among the companies that are viewed as the premier players in the business. Just recently, we have witnessed Picturehouse, New Line and Warner Independent Pictures all closing their doors.

But one company really stands out from the rest, and that’s because of the longevity of the executives who run it. Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, have headed Sony’s New York-based specialty division for 18 years, making quite a name for themselves for producing and distributing an extraordinary range of high-end English and foreign-language films.

Their track record speaks for itself, as they are responsible for bringing to audiences some of the most memorable films of the past two decades. Among their triumphs are the record-breaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Oscar winners Howards End, Indochine, Pollock, Capote and The Lives of Others; Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver and Bad Education; and recent Oscar nominees Frozen River, Waltz with Bashir, The Class and Rachel Getting Married. The two business icons travel the world in search of diversified product and their stability has kept Sony Pictures Classics at the forefront of the specialty market. Just before the pair left for Cannes, their parent company renewed their contracts for another four years.

The company is getting set to release Woody Allen’s Whatever Works and Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, and later in the year the biopic Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou.

Congratulations to Michael and Tom on the character and class they bring to their profession.