Technicolor has been working on a 3-D-for-film process for some time, but the first public announcement of it was made in a company focus article appearing in the Los Angeles Times this month. In the article, Jeffrey Katzenberg was quoted with supportive statements.
The technology in discussion is not new, but simply a repackaging of an older means of projecting left and right images in 24-frame-per-second film projectors. Why film? Naturally, if you’re in the film duplication business, extending the utility of film would be a high priority. The argument to filmmakers and distributors, of course, is that rapid growth of the 3-D footprint will be much easier if one doesn’t have to buy a digital projector.
But is this viable? It would be a schizophrenic move on the part of studios should they decide to support it. 3-D is the value add for digital cinema, and the driving force behind nearly all digital cinema sales today. If 3-D movies can now be played on film systems, that would undermine the growth of digital cinema. Studios have made substantial commitments, both out-of-pocket and in future contractual obligations, to the digital format. In addition, the introduction of a film 3-D format has the potential to confuse the public. Digital 3-D plays well because it looks good. Audiences are paying a premium to attend digital 3-D presentations. But if asked to pay a premium for a film 3-D version that doesn’t match the quality of digital projection, there is substantial risk that the audience will walk away with the wrong impression of 3-D. As one distributor puts it: “We got into digital 3-D because the quality was higher than my father’s 3-D. Everything I’ve seen on film is my father’s 3-D.”
Quality assessments aside, a more pragmatic problem is that Technicolor is only one of three such ventures demonstrating 3-D on film. At least two of these ventures, in your author’s opinion, will be viable for film. But even two such ventures clouds the economics. Studios cannot pick and choose among competitive technologies. They will have to embrace them all. And in this lies the biggest hurdle for film-based 3-D. The need to produce and inventory multiple versions of 3-D film prints will be expensive. On top of which, the potential to distribute the wrong 3-D film print to a theatre will be real, and also expensive.
No studio executive has said, even in private, that they support such a scheme. In fact, quite the opposite. With DVD sales down, the need to squeeze profit out of film distribution is higher than ever. As a result, the commitment to convert to digital cinema to reduce long term distribution costs has only risen in priority. To risk delay of that conversion by supporting a 3-D film format goes completely against the grain. But studio execs have directors and producers to appease. And in Paramount’s case, if Jeffrey wants the next Shrek on film-based 3-D, then that’s what he will get. But I wouldn’t bank on seeing Avatar in film-based 3-D.
If film-based 3-D finds its niche, it will be in markets where digital cinema has yet to penetrate. But with 12,000 systems around the world, with a fair prediction of 15,000 by the time Avatar is released, one will be hard-pressed to find such a market.