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Rose-colored glasses

Digital 3-D is changing Missoula’s—and the nation’s—movie theaters

Not long ago a movie theater manager’s biggest concerns involved scraping melted Jujubes from theater seats and repairing the occasional broken reel of film. This week, however, Richard Taylor, manager of Missoula’s Carmike Cinemas, dealt with something a bit more important: updating his struggling industry’s magic silver bullet.

“I had technicians in yesterday afternoon to install new equipment in our media cabinet—new satellite equipment, new receiver equipment, and we had a new processor installed last week to process all the information,” he says. “It’s quite the challenge from my perspective, but these guys seem to feel pretty confident.”

Taylor’s talking digital 3-D. And not just your parent’s antiquated, headache-inducing 3-D. The equipment Carmike recently installed and updated will help the theater broadcast the Jan. 8 Bowl Championship Subdivision title game—that’s college football’s Super Bowl—in 3-D live. It’s a first for the Atlanta-based chain and part of a company-wide initiative to become the leader in “3-D cinema.”

In fact, it’s part of an industry-wide push to get people away from their 52-inch high-def TVs and Blu-ray discs and back into movie theaters. In 2008, movie attendance fell 5 percent and revenue 1 percent from the previous year, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. It’s the second time since 2005 that both numbers have dipped in an industry that generally sees an increase year over year. The downward trend has movie mavens like Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive officer of DreamWorks Animation, hailing 3-D technology as the film industry’s “third revolution,” or the biggest thing to happen to moving pictures since sound and Technicolor debuted in the 1920s.

“Absolutely,” says Taylor, agreeing with Katzenberg’s lofty statement. “The digital 3-D revolution is still in its developmental stage, building off the red-and-blue glasses of the ’70s and ’80s. This new digital 3-D is a whole new ballgame for us with tons of new possibilities.”

In Missoula, those possibilities include a few theatrical releases featured in 3-D—Walt Disney Animation’s Bolt is currently featured in 3-D—and a smattering of special events. The latter demonstrate how Carmike is trying to attract new audiences, with everything from a U2 concert and February’s National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game to an opera series and a performance by Cirque du Soleil jumping off the silver screen. Taylor says the single biggest 3-D attraction since the technology first debuted in Missoula last year was a Miley Cyrus concert; originally slated for a one-week run, Carmike extended it for two additional weeks to meet demand.

“The 3-D implementation on a Disney cartoon, while groundbreaking and inventive as it is for digital cinema, it’s nothing compared to actual live footage,” says Taylor. “The Hannah Montana show—I may not be a big fan, but as the manager I had to watch it—had this clarity and depth perception that I thought were incredible.”

The 3-D revolution does come at a price. Locally, moviegoers pay a $2 surcharge for films in 3-D, or more for special events. Nationally, Carmike Cinemas Inc. has risked its future on the new technology taking off. According to a company statement, “As of September 30, 2008, Carmike had 250 theatres with 2,276 screens in 36 states. Carmike’s digital cinema footprint reaches 2,147 screens, of which 430 are also equipped with 3-D capability. Carmike’s focus for its theatre locations is small to mid-sized communities with populations of fewer than 100,000.” Such a huge investment in new technology has saddled the company with crippling debt; shares have lost about 90 percent of their value since the beginning of 2007.

But there’s hope those numbers will rebound in 2009. New investors are jumping onboard with Carmike, such as flamboyant NBA owner and dot-com billionaire Mark Cuban, who recently divulged that he owns 9.4 percent of the company. And movie studios are anxiously providing 3-D content in 2009, with some of the films carrying expectations of being the year’s top earners. For instance, Katzenberg’s DreamWorks will release Monsters vs. Aliens, starring Seth Rogen and Stephen Colbert, in March, and Lionsgate is set to debut My Bloody Valentine, the first horror film to tap into the new 3-D capabilities, next week.

“We’re expecting a huge turnout for that one,” says Taylor about the horror film.

It’s all a long way from when Brit photographer William Friese-Greene, the inventor of cinematography, first stepped behind a camera. Or, for that matter, a lot different than 3-D’s so-called “Golden Era” in the ’50s, when drive-in double features were more gimmicky than grand illusion, more likely to cause dizziness than popcorn-launching scares. In other words, digital 3-D actually looks pretty cool—even if it does still involve the same goofy blue-and-red glasses. 

“The equipment’s completely different, much more refined,” explains Taylor. “There’s a controller inside the digital projector that takes the signal from the movie and divides it into two different signals—a left and a right. When it passes through something called the ‘Z Screen,’ which attaches to the front of the projector, it puts each signal on the screen exactly where it’s supposed to be. Then when it bounces back through your glasses and into your eyes, the glasses put it back into one image with two different depths.”

Easy. It sounds so easy that some may be surprised by the fact that movie theaters believe it’s the key to reviving business.

“I was impressed,” says Taylor. “The animated stuff is great, but the live-action movies tend to be so realistic and in-your-face that, yes, I think that 3-D will actually turn things around and make the cinema industry top again.”


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