What was once an occasional fad is now driving the greatest technological change at the cinema in nearly a century.
Digital 3D movies have been so successful – with average opening weekends in the United States making two to five times as much money per location as the same films garner in 2D – that they have sparked a spike in conversions of cinemas from 35mm film to digital projection.
Three-dimensional movies are nothing new, having become prominent in the early 1950s with the likes of Bwana Devil, House of Wax and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another notable revival occurred in the early 1980s with such movies as Comin' At Ya!, Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th Part 3.
But these films were primarily special effects novelties that never sustained moviegoers' interest and support. Digital 3D, however, will surprise anyone who saw an old 3D movie by providing a more sophisticated, realistic and convincing experience.
And because it's a cash cow, more movies are being made in digital 3D. Films to screen in Nelson in the past year or so that were available in 3D were Beowulf, My Bloody Valentine, Bolt, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Coraline, Monsters vs Aliens, Up, Ice Age 3, G-Force, Final Destination 4, A Christmas Carol, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Planet 51 and Avatar. About 30 3D releases are expected next year.
Many cinemas, including the State in Nelson, are removing their 35mm film projectors and installing digital projection – known as D cinemas – so they can jump on the digital 3D box office bandwagon, even though digital projection is expensive, about three times the cost of a 35mm projector.
State Cinema director Mark Christensen – who has kept to the forefront of cinema operation as president and now an executive member of the New Zealand Motion Picture Exhibitors Association, and with his cinema equipment company – calls the advent of digital 2D and 3D projection "the biggest technological change in 90 years" since the introduction of sound.
"Don't underestimate the subsequent introduction of stereo sound or digital sound – but this is much bigger," he says. "When roughly 12 per cent of cinema screens worldwide have converted to digital, that represents critical mass. And when the digital screen count in Australia doubles in three months, that's critical mass."
New Zealand had no digital screens in 2007 – Australia had 19. In 2008, New Zealand had three screens (Australia 54); by July this year, 13 (Australia 125). Now, New Zealand has 20 digital screens out of a total of 450 screens (Australia has about 300 out of 1980 screens).
From the 1890s until now, movies have always been presented on 35mm-wide film (in some cases, 70mm), running on a mechanical projector that hasn't really changed in design except for improvements in light source, lenses and film stock, Christensen says.
"But this is a fundamental change in the way film is delivered, and has big implications for the way the film industry operates."
In effect, the move to digital projection is sounding the death knell of 35mm film-making. It's not clear, Christensen says, how long it will take 35mm to disappear in favour of digital movies – but, inevitably, it will happen.
"One of the advantages of digital is that we will be able to present to moviegoers what is effectively an exact replica of a movie's studio master," he says, explaining that this has never been the case with 35mm because 35mm release prints are several generations removed from the studio master – and, as with magnetic tape copies, they suffer a quality degradation with each copy.
D cinemas provide quality equal to 35mm film, thanks to a standard developed between the Hollywood studios, the equipment manufacturers and major cinema companies in the US, says Christensen. Anything below that standard is called E cinema, which is what the State Cinema operates in its three DVD cinemas.
"The difference between E cinema and D cinema is like the difference between night and day," says Christensen.
"E cinemas around the country vary from quite good in terms of home entertainment systems to worse than what you've got at home. There is no standard, that's the problem."
And the State's E cinemas?
"They're a nice environment, they've got nice decor. When I came back into the company two years ago, I did an assessment of them and found that to bring them up to a similar standard of 35mm screens, so they effectively looked and sounded the same, we would have to throw out the entire sound and projection systems and start again."
That start is being launched with the movie Avatar, which Christensen says is "breaking the mould for 3D because it's the first 3D movie that's come out with the whole intention of using 3D to enhance realism, not to have things coming at you".
"It also has a lot of live action in it, and it's not essential to see it in 3D to enjoy it, because it has a good story. It's not just an effects movie."
Those who see Avatar and future 3D movies at the State will still need to purchase special glasses. These will cost $1.50, but patrons will be able to keep them and re-use them (as long as they look after them) for future 3D films at the State or any other cinema that uses the Real D digital projection system.
Christensen believes that this will become common practice across all digital 3D cinemas – and that eventually, moviegoers will be able to purchase their own designer 3D glasses.
Ticket prices for 3D movies will be higher than for 2D movies. At the State, an adult ticket for an evening screening costs $14.50; for 3D films, the price jumps to $17.50, with the cost of the glasses on top of that.
"The price at the State for a 3D ticket and to purchase glasses is still cheaper than what you would pay in Auckland – and actually, you get a better experience here because we have a smaller screen and a powerful projector, so the movie actually looks better," Christensen says.
- Avatar 3D opens at the State Cinema in Nelson today.
- © Fairfax NZ News