3D films face a screen crunch

Columns

2009 was an exceptional year for the movie industry. Box office reached a record level and attendance beat the previous year. Avatar ended the year on a real high, and as we entered 2010 the film continued playing with unprecedented strength and now is the highest-grossing film of all-time.

What a glorious way to end a year and begin a new one….especially as the global industry congregates in Las Vegas at the annual ShoWest convention. With box office riding high and a general feeling of euphoria as the industry rode out the recession victoriously once again, there is a lot to cheer about.

As delegates gather for the traditional ShoWest Tuesday morning program when the industry pays tribute to the $100 million films of 2009, we learn that seven of the 31 films in this category were released in 3D. It’s obvious that the biggest challenge for 3D is no longer acceptance by the moviegoing audience, but the ability of theatres globally to keep up with the technology. With 20 3D movies being readied for release in 2010 and the number of 3D screens totaling under 4,000, there will be an overlapping of titles and some film is bound to get the short stick. The next few months will be a key test, since new 3D pictures will be opening while some films continue to play strong and would normally be held over.

There just are not enough 3D screens. No longer can one or two screens in a multiplex be enough to accommodate the flow of content that is being released to theatres.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that financing is now in place—$660 million—to convert DCIP theatres to digital, paving the way for more 3D screens as well as more 3D films. This newest influx of dollars will likely result in 1,100 theatres adding some 14,000 digital screens. Yes, it is no longer a pipe dream and the expected turn of events is truly about to happen.

Alice in Wonderland opened on March 5 domestically and resulted in theatres having to pull Avatar, which was still generating good dollars at the box office. Paramount’s 3D release of How to Train Your Dragon opens March 26 and will be followed a week later by Warner Bros.’ launch of Clash of the Titans. The mix gets even more cluttered with Shrek Forever After premiering May 21, followed by Toy Story 3, Despicable Me and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.

Exhibitors are anticipating that by year’s end there will be several thousand more 3D screens, enough to accommodate a crush of 3D releases during the holiday frame including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, Tangled, Yogi Bear and Tron Legacy.

In addition to the DCIP screens, Cinedigm expects to install 3,500 digital screens this year, with perhaps half of them 3D-enabled. Retrofitting takes time, so the process will not be quick, but it is happening and that’s what is most important.

Saluting Bill Stembler
Many awards are presented each year at ShoWest, and those that get the most recognition are the ones that go to the celebrities and filmmakers at the final-night awards banquet. Others that are given out during the course of the four-day show often go unnoticed, but they are as important to the recipients as the major honors the final evening.

One such honor is called the “ShoWester of the Year” Award. It has been presented each year since the inception of the convention and generally goes to a theatre owner or operator. It is awarded to an individual for distinguished leadership in the movie industry and significant contributions to his or her local community.

This year’s award goes to a Southern gentleman who has earned the respect of his fellow exhibitors and has worked tirelessly on behalf of exhibition through his work with the National Association of Theatre Owners. William Jenkins Stembler, better known to his friend as Bill, is the chairman and chief executive officer of Georgia Theatre Company.

In the April edition of Film Journal International, we are pleased to single out the contributions of Bill Stembler and his team at Georgia Theatre Co. We wish him continued good luck in the years ahead.

A 90-Year Milestone
Ninety years young and still running strong. That might be an oxymoron, but when applied to one of the most innovative and durable movie theatre companies in the world, it’s just business as usual. AMC Entertainment, Inc. is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, and after a major takeover of Loews Theatres several years ago, it just entered into an agreement with 101-year-old Kerasotes ShowPlace Theatres to acquire most of the Chicago chain’s circuit.

As the second-largest theatre circuit in the world, AMC has long history dating back to the 1920s. But the real story began when Stan Durwood took the venerable circuit to the next level when he opened the first multiplex in 1963 in Kansas City. The circuit continued its pioneering innovations with the cupholder armrest, guest-loyalty programs and the first North American megaplex, the Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas.

Now in the capable hands of Gerry Lopez, AMC is moving into the digital era and expects to have 500 3D screens ready for the opening of Alice in Wonderland—and with the DCIP financing now in place, those numbers will swell very quickly. Add to this alternative programming, in-theatre dining and social networking, and the Lopez stamp will be on AMC very quickly.

Congratulations to AMC on their 90th anniversary. Good luck in this new era of growth and technology.