At the time of this report, Avatar reached its 7th straight week of being number one at the box office. Its success will impact the industry for years to come as studios seek to green light projects that might match its allure. More than subjecting us to a future slate of movies inevitably populated with blue aliens, Avatar has changed the way audiences and the press will view 3-D. Avatar also proved a few things along the way, which are worth reviewing.
Movies such as Avatar, Monster vs Aliens, and UP proved that exhibitors will buy digital projectors out of their pocket if they can perceive value. While deployment entities around the world were struggling to find capital and customers in 2009, exhibitors installed 2000 projectors in the US alone, over 97% of which are 3-D, and the majority of which are not financed through VPFs. Internationally, the numbers are even more stunning. Digital cinema installations grew internationally by a whopping 6800 screens. This was a 330% increase, ten times the percentage growth of digital cinema in the US. Nearly 250% of that growth was driven by 3-D.
The impact of this growth has yet to be fully digested. Direct ownership could alter exhibitor attitudes towards digital cinema permanently. Direct ownership means that they do not have to share data and succumb to audits. It could also mean that they get a film print if they move the movie to a film projector. Deployment plans are burdened with the cumbersome requirement of having all content providers pay, including advertisers and alternative content. They are burdened with the goal of recoupment, which requires auditing of the deployment entity, who in turn must audit the exhibitor. Many exhibitors refuse to sign up with VPF financed deployment entities today because of these restrictions. They will have even less incentive to do so once they get accustomed to having a digital projector that is treated no differently than a film projector.
Avatar’s box office ratio of 3-D to 2-D also told a story of its own. In the US, with data published after its first few weeks of release, 3-D screens in the US only brought in 120% of the box office from 2-D screens. Internationally, 3-D brought in 220% of the box office from 2-D screens, more typical of past 3-D/2-D performance. The small increase in the US might be attributed to the bump in ticket price for 3-D and packed audiences for both 2-D and 3-D screenings. But it could also reflect that 2-D screenings may have taken place in larger auditoriums. 3-D screens tend to have smaller auditoriums for reasons of projection system light loss in 3-D.
In a less dramatic way, Avatar took 3-D subtitling to a new level. Not only were subtitles carefully placed in the scenes so as not to interfere with the characters, but they were also burned in to match the depth of the main objects in each scene. In at least one scene, the depth varied to match the movement in the scene. The result was easy-on-the-eye subtitles. But Avatar’s subtitles were burned in. Matching this easy-on-the-eye behavior by rendering text in projection equipment, particularly with moving depth, will be quite challenging. While a SMPTE ad hoc group has been studying ways to modify the existing subtitle/caption delivery format to include 3-D capability, it has been bogged down with issues such as moving depth.
Finally, one of the remarkable features of Avatar is that it is a 3-hour 3-D movie that does not strain the eyes. This is the result of years of lessons learned by Jim Cameron from working with the format. Avatar’s success will undoubtedly have studios rushing to convert existing 2-D projects into 3-D. But the upcoming rush to 3-D may not produce such easy-on-the-eye productions. The first one of this class to keep an eye on is Warner’s Clash of the Titans, which is said to be in a last minute rush to convert to 3-D. To attract business, inexperienced post houses tout the ability to convert movies to 3-D quickly and for little money, but the results speak otherwise. Good 3-D takes time to produce, as Jim Cameron undoubtedly would attest. His movie, however, may be the exception. Be prepared for some bad 3-D coming soon.