01.04.10

Life After Avatar

The billion-dollar success of James Cameron’s epic has Hollywood scrambling to make more films in 3-D. Kim Masters on the next movie gold rush.

As promised, Avatar is huge. Worldwide, the film boomed to more than $1 billion worth of box office in 17 days, and the declines in ticket sales from weekend to weekend are so minuscule as to be “unprecedented in the annals of box-office tracking,” writes analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

If you think those numbers are lost on Hollywood—well, you don’t really think that, do you? The industry, which had somewhat soured on the whole 3-D, motion-capture thing in the wake of Robert Zemeckis’ gloomy Christmas Carol, is now a lot sweeter on the subject.

“There’s no doubt that people all through the industry over the holidays were thinking, ‘Should we do this movie in 3-D? Is this worthy?’”

“People clearly understood—this is not your father’s 3-D,” says Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “There was this clarity of comprehension.” And that wasn’t just among filmgoers but among Hollywood insiders, as well.

“There’s no doubt that people all through the industry over the holidays were thinking, ‘Should we do this movie in 3-D? Is this worthy?’” says DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider. The company has already started talking about when it would make sense to use the technique.

“For us, it isn’t about genre or demographic but more about the scope of the world that you’re creating,” says Snider. Steven Spielberg is already at work on a 3-D and motion-capture film, The Adventures of Tintin, due in theaters in December 2011. But now other projects in development are being considered through the 3-D lens.

The Avatar factor could make the difference on Cowboys and Aliens, a DreamWorks project to be directed by Jon Favreau that starts shooting in July. (Plot line: Settlers and Indians put aside their differences when a spaceship crash-lands in their town.)

Rumor has it that director Ridley Scott decided, late in the game, that he wanted Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe, to be in 3-D. But that film, set to release in May, has already been shot, and Universal has no intention of trying to 3-D-ify it now. (A curious film executive not associated with that project inquired what it would cost to take a movie in progress now and convert it to 3-D. The estimate was that it would add a minimum of $50 million to the budget and possibly three times that much.)

Fox’s Gianopulos says his studio hasn’t yet set a template for deciding which films should be in 3-D, though clearly, certain movies lend themselves more readily to the process. Doing a movie like Sideways in 3-D wouldn’t offer “the same benefit as when you have a banshee flying across a canyon,” he says. But eventually, he says he believes 3-D will become the standard.

Chris Aronson, a senior vice president at Fox, says one of the revelations of Avatar was that 3-D is a technique separate from the lavish computer-generated imagery. “To me, the live-action part of Avatar was equally remarkable” as the computer-generated world of Pandora, he says. “We’ve always joked about, ‘Would you want to see My Dinner with Andre in 3-D?’ Well, actually, yeah.” The technique isn’t just about creating extraordinary worlds, he says, but about having movies appear “as though you’re looking through a window.”

Still, many in the industry continue to eye the technique with caution. One studio chief says 3-D is great if you have a fortune to spend and Jim Cameron at the helm. “What he did is not what we do for a living or can do for a living,” this veteran says. “If we try to make all our movies look like his, we’re going to be bankrupt.”

Cost is a hindrance, and there still aren’t enough movie screens that can play 3-D films to sustain a serious expansion of the technique. ( Avatar is playing on 3,600 screens across the country, of which 2,200 show it in 3-D.) But in the wake of Cameron’s blockbuster, Gianopulos says, “we’re past the tipping point where the economics become feasible and all the pieces are in place.”

Not only will theater owners hasten to upgrade, but within months, not years, 3-D will be in the home. And when it happens, the technique will take more strides toward becoming the standard for all movies.

In the year ahead, however, there is a paucity of 3-D material that seems likely to have blockbuster appeal. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland comes out in March, and the rest of the 3-D offerings on the lineup are family movies with a few niche films in the mix.

Still, change is coming, and Avatar will hasten it. There’s already been talk about rendering Titanic and Star Wars in 3-D; can plans for the Lord of the Rings trilogy be far behind? That process takes months, not years, and it isn’t even that expensive by show-business standards.

By the time we watch of few of those 3-D reimaginings, Hollywood should have some fresh material. And maybe you’ll own your first pair of designer 3-D glasses.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.