Clash of the 3D Titans: a War Over Screens

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The bottleneck at 3D theaters that’s been looming for months comes to a head

It’s a problem that’s been looming for many months: 3D titles surging at a pace that was sure to outrun the number of screens available to exhibit them. 

Now, Warner’s decision to add the 3D conversion of "Clash of the Titans" to the mix appears to have finally jammed the works.

“We will not have enough 3D screens in March and April to accommodate these pictures,” John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, told TheWrap. “Everyone’s not going to be happy.”

When “Titans” debuts April 2, three 3D films will already reside in a North American theatrical marketplace that currently only has about 3,500 digital 3D screens, with about 150 being added each month.

Paramount/DreamWorks is set to open “How to Train Your Dragon” March 26. Disney’s Tim Burton-directed “Alice in Wonderland” debuts March 5. And even Fox’s “Avatar” could still be factor after more than three months in theaters.

Fithian estimates that there might be 4,000 digital 3D theater rooms available by mid-March, but “even then it’s going to be a battle for screens.”

“I don’t think there’s enough room for two 3D releases to go full-bore at the same time, let alone two and a half,” added one studio distribution executive.

For its part, Warners is aware of the potential bottleneck, but is hopeful that conditions will improve in time for the April 2 "Titans" premiere.

“We all wish there were more screens available in the marketplace,” said Warner distribution president Dan Fellman, noting that he expects “Titans” to be fully converted into 3D and widely distributed into digitally enabled theaters for its debut. “Exhibition is doing what it can to improve the situation by the time we open. But until we get past this little bump in the road, everybody will probably end up with a few less (3D) screens than they would like.” 

("Titans" isn’t just creating havoc in the 3D world: As part of Warner’s decision to convert the movie into the 3D format, the studio bumped the film’s release back a week to April 2, prompting rival studios to do plenty of juggling of their own. MGM, for example, moved its comedy "Hot Tub Time Machine" out of the April 2 slot. CBS Films, meanwhile, pushed its Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy "The Back-Up Plan" back a week to April 23.) 

Following Warner’s announcement that it was going to throw “Titans” into a crowded 3D market, there has been speculation among competitors that Warner will widely utilize Technicolor’s Film Solution, a technology that would enable non-digital movie houses to show “Clash” in 3D via standard celluloid.

Fellman, however, negated any claims that “Clash” will utilize this analog technology, telling TheWrap that “Technicolor Film Solution is not a big part of our plan. RealD (digital 3D technology) is going to be our primary focus."

The exhibition industry has a stated goal of having somewhere between 7,000-8,000 digital 3D screens available in North America by the end of the year, a benchmark Fithian called “aggressive.”

Certainly, the demand for these venues will only intensify, with nearly 20 3D films already on the 2010 3D calendar before Warner’s conversion announcement, which also added “Cats & Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore,” “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” onto the year’s 3D docket.

How did the exhibition industry get behind on 3D? Blame the credit crisis, Fithian said.

Two years ago, exhibitors laid out a long-term 3D installation plan to meet what everyone saw as a growing demand. Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit Wall Street.

“In September 2008, the technical standards of 3D were coming together and we were primed for a rollout, and then the economy collapsed,” he explained. “Now, the credit markets have loosened up, but we’re still having to get very creative in out financing with exhibitors and vendors and we’re trying everything we can. The reality is we’re not where we want to be."