A Look at Digital Cinema's Third Dimension

Once in a while you come across a true game-changer — a single product that changes the rules of engagement for a particular market to such an extent that it leaves it altered in the future. It's easy enough to put a list together — the iPhone, Jimi Hendrix, the compact disc all spring to mind — but the relevant one here is "Avatar," James Cameron's sprawling science fiction epic, which won numerous awards last winter.

It's relevant because it was the first film to really take the promise of 3D cinema and parlay it into a compelling experience that audiences of all ages and demographics wanted to see. For the first time 3D was the way to experience a film, with the vast majority heading off to 3D showings and happily paying a premium to don the glasses. Filmgoers who could only get tickets for the 2D version would then happily pay again to watch exactly the same film, but with the added dimension. Estimates are that by April 2010, driven largely by "Avatar's" huge success, 3D releases had accounted for 33 percent of the U.S. box office. And, given the relatively small number of screens 3D can currently be projected on, that's enough to make even the most hardened movie exec sit up and take notice.

On the back of this, the number of digital screens is rising all the time. According to research published by Screen Digest, by the end of 2009 there were 16,405 digital cinema screens dotted around the world, an increase of 86 percent on the 2008 figure. Growth in Europe has been particularly rapid as the continent tries to catch up with the United States, with the number of screens jumping by a whopping 296 percent to a total of 4,580. It all makes the days of talking about "the growth of digital cinema stalling in Europe" seem a very long way away.

However, these figures just serve to mask the truly impressive leap made in the number of 3D screens. Driven by Cameron's blue-skinned Na'Vi, globally their number has climbed 254 percent and in Western Europe by a fairly jaw-dropping 614 percent. To the accompaniment of a drum-roll in the background, we can read that there are now 9,000 digital screens worldwide — 55 percent of the digital total. So it would seem that 3D is not just driving digital cinema growth, to an extent it is digital cinema growth.

It's not just occurring on normal-sized screens either. For Imax "Avatar" alone brought in around four times the gross box office of an ordinary 3D release — not just on one or two screens, but internationally. Insider estimates have five screens, including the BFI in London and Moscow, and three screens in Asia grossing over $3 million on "Avatar" all by itself. A total of 45 screens internationally took in over $1 million on the film.

Not unsurprisingly, Imax is now expanding its portfolio of Hollywood releases, up to 15 big-name films a year. But rather than build completely new theatres, the company has gone down the route of placing new digital Imax screens into retrofitted auditoria. In fact, Screen Digest estimates the total number of giant cinema screens increased by over 20 percent to 578 worldwide in 2009. Digital, Screen Digest estimates, now accounts for 30 percent of the giant screen market globally.

Both "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland" set new records for 3D box office, leading Screen Digest to project the worldwide box office for 3D titles to more than double to a sizeable $5.5 billion in 2010. But before we start to envisage a gravy train all round, it's worth straining an ear to listen to that small word being whispered: storyline. The less-than-warm response to the release of "Clash of the Titans," for example, proves that there's more to an epic 3D movie than bats suddenly flying out of caves — they need proper storylines, plot and character development, and engaging on-screen performances. Just as the wonders of Pandora sent the punters scurrying in to embrace 3D, it only takes a few howlers to send them scurrying straight home again.

Assuming that moviemakers don't drop the ball in the coming years, throughout western Europe, Dodona Research says there are "grounds for optimism" as digital projection technology is increasingly rolled out, and further 3D releases hit the screens. It has observed a period of consolidation, which has left many exhibitors in a strengthened position, with relatively few embarking on expansion plans, or building new cinemas.

And while it cannot rule out another bout of consolidation, you only have to look at the fact that European digital cinema group XDC has been backed by a €100m credit facility to help rollout digital cinema across Europe — and Arts Alliance Media has signed up Cineworld Group to take all of its 790 screens digital, as well as securing €50 million in funding to convert 1000 more screens — to sense that optimism is actually in plentiful supply, at least from the financial markets.

It will be interesting to see if that optimism follows through to IBC where the session "State of play: Developments in D-cinema" will assess the current state of digital cinema deployment worldwide and the rate of digital cinema uptake, as well as calculating the impact of 3D on the cinema business. The session is on 14 Sep 2010, from 09:30–13:00 and will be chaired by David Monk, CEO of EDCF. It could well prove to be a fascinating one and, what's more, it's part of the Added Value stream, so is free to all attendees at the show.

Kate Large is a U.K.-based writer whose work covers all aspects of media production, distribution and technology.