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Comin’ at Ya — Indies Riding 3D Wave, Too

Screen count the big hurdle for smaller 3D films.

Indies and minimajors are seriously getting in on the 3D act.


While most of the attention — and box office — for 3D surrounds big studio titles like Disney-Pixar’s "Up" and DreamWorks’ "Monsters vs. Aliens," smaller companies are riding the format wave as well.


“There are more 3D indies than tentpoles in development,” said Bob Johnston, executive producer at 3D company Paradise FX.


Johnson said that Paradise has been in some level of discussion on nearly 40 potential independent 3D features, the majority of which are aiming for the $6-18 million budget range.


The company’s indie 3D work includes “Dark Country,” which was acquired by Sony but does not yet have a release date; and titles that are seeking distribution, including “The Hole,” which is post, and “Street Dance,” which is in preproduction.


The cost of 3D will vary by the complexity of a production, but Johnston said that a film with $10-15 million budget, for example, would likely need an additional 10-15% for 3D. 


Exhibitors and 3D TV stakeholders — who have been asking for a steady stream of 3D content to justify their investments — will no doubt view this activity as good news. But others point out that there are pitfalls.


Some of these involve production and screen count. Estimates are that there are slightly more than 2,000 3D ready screens in the domestic market. Securing those screens for a theatrical release can be a challenge.


“There are not enough screens for indie movies right now, and too many big budget 3D movies are coming out,” said Steve Schklair, CEO of 3Ality Digital Systems, the company behind “U2 3D.” (Separately, RealD announced Sunday that it has doubled its installation base of RealD 3-D equipped cinema screens worldwide and notched 400% growth in Europe in the first half of 2009.)


Last weekend, for instance, Vivendi opened “Call of the Wild 3D.” But with Disney/Pixar’s “Up” playing in the majority of the 3D auditoriums, the indie opened on only 14 screens and at press time had generated a paltry $16,688.


In contrast, Lionsgate’s “My Bloody Valentine 3D” found success in a three-week window last winter, during which it had access to 1,033 3D screens. The film was made for $16 million and generated $51.5 million at the domestic box office. On “My Bloody Valentine,” an estimated $3 million of the $16 million total budget went to the 3D engineering.


“We were lucky that we released when we did,” director Patrick Lussier said. “Our production budget was low, and we could afford to come out on just 1,033 screens and still make money. But the more you spend, the more screens you have to have.”


Despite the bubbling up of 3D indies, Schklair still suggested, “I wouldn’t pin my 3D indie on theatrical, but I would plan for direct-to-disc. And the investor needs to understand that it is a five year — not one year — payback, as it will take time to get the 3D TVs in homes.”


But 2009 was the year in which lower-rung companies got into the 3D act. Following "My Bloody Valentine," Focus Features opened Laika-produced "Coraline." Henry Selick’s 3D stop-motion animated film earned $75.3 million domestically and just over $105 million worldwide.


In August, New Line-Warner Bros’ 3D release "The Final Destination" is slated to open August 28. New Line found success last summer with the surprise hit "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which  grossed $240 million worldwide on a $60 million budget. To be fair, it didn’t have to share any screens with other 3D titles but it still showed what a format title can do given the opportunity.


And nWave Pictures, which produced last summer’s Summit-distributed animated indie "Fly Me to the Moon," is working on its next 3-D movie titled "Around the World in 50 Years 3D."


As interest in the format grows, the indie community is starting to produce and view more 3D projects, including at demonstrations and conferences. But some are reporting getting headaches during some of these screenings, and that has stakeholders concerned.


“What scares me the most are bad 3D movies coming out,” Schklair said. “That is what killed it in the ‘70s.”


To address this concern, numerous stakeholders are participating in production education for the community.


Schklair noted that proper budgeting is also a consideration: “It’s not quite a low budget medium yet. Some projects end up with shots that will hurt your eyes, but they don’t have the money to fix it in post.”


But it really comes back to screen count. “We need enough screens to support three or more 3D film at once, that is when independents can take advantage of the format,” Lussier suggested. “Some people say one day every movie will be in 3D, but until they can release all those movies in 3D, it going to be a while.”