The 3-D Pileup: Too Many Movies, Not Enough Screens

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A great restaurant just opened — or maybe it's a club, or a Broadway show — and everyone's raving about it, but nobody can get in. Movies, though, are the people's entertainment; Hollywood exists to give its vast audience instant gratification, to have enough screens for all the masses to attend the big new movie on its opening weekend, in its optimum format. You want to see the new hit film? No problem. Theater exhibitors will increase the number of screens showing it. Buy a ticket and walk on in.

Not now. At least, not when the movie's in 3-D. Only about 4,000 of the 39,000 screens in North American theaters are currently equipped to show movies in the suddenly megafashionable format, and though theater chains are scrambling to convert more screens, they and the studios still feel the shortage. This weekend there will be an unprecedented 3-D-theater traffic jam as Clash of the Titans joins last week's box-office champ How to Train Your Dragon and the Disney blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. That could make this the first weekend in movie history when the top three pictures at the domestic box office are shown in 3-D — except there aren't enough venues with suitable screens for the three movies.

When demand exceeds supply, it's great for word of mouth but lousy for business. So to secure 3-D screens for their product, some studio bosses have been playing old-fashioned hardball. The week before How to Train Your Dragon opened, the Los Angeles Times reported that "Paramount Pictures is telling theaters that if they don't show the upcoming DreamWorks-produced Dragon on a 3-D screen, then it will withhold from the theater a 2-D version of the movie to play instead ... Many multiplexes only have a single 3-D screen, so not having a conventional version of the highly anticipated DreamWorks family film to play on their other screens would severely affect ticket sales." Add to this the reported hints of an embargo that could deprive theater owners of hit films for months. According to the industry news blog the Wrap, "Executives at the [ShoWest] exhibition trade conference in Las Vegas said Paramount had suggested it might not be so forthcoming with Iron Man 2 and Shrek Forever After if exhibitors don't find 3-D screens for Dragon."

The movie landed last weekend on about 2,000 3-D screens, with about the same for 2-D, and earned $43.7 million — more than enough to win the box-office race but considerably less than the opening, the same week last year, of DreamWorks' Monsters vs Aliens. The dip may be attributed to a lack of stars in the voice roles or to the more traditional, Disney-feature-like story and tone, but it could also be that more 3-D screens would have given Dragon more firepower.

Paramount did manage to extract a promise from exhibitors that the number of 3-D screens would hold for two weeks. This put a serious crimp in the release of Clash of the Titans, whose opening was delayed a week, both to complete the film's reformatting in 3-D and to secure more venues that could show it in that format. Clash opens Friday on about 1,500 3-D screens and 2,000 2-Ds. Industry analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says Clash might have been expected to earn about $100 million this weekend — if it had secured all the 3-D screens it needed, which Warner Bros. could have done if it had released the film in mid-April, when Alice and Dragon would have run their course, and before the first expected smash of the summer season, Iron Man 2. But Warner decided on Easter weekend, and the swamis are now predicting a take of $70 million for Clash's opening three days. "Warner Bros.' decision doesn't make a lot of sense," Bock observes. "You don't see many other 3-D conflicts down the line, and if they really wanted to maximize their attendance dollars, you could just hold it a week or two and have an open field."

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