Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009:
#6: 3D Films Permeate Marketplace
By David Mumpower
January 1, 2010

He'd like to offer you a hand.

Chicken Little earned $135.4 million during its domestic run, but that is not the intriguing aspect of its release. Disney's CGI programmers coded the production in such a manner that it could be displayed in 3D utilizing a nascent technology named RealD. This made the movie a curiosity and is one of the reasons it wound up with a strong worldwide box office total of $314.4 million. Disney mimicked this release strategy with a couple of more CGI animation titles, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt. I highly recommend all three titles for their quality, but what is important for the purpose of this discussion is that the former movie earned $169.3 million worldwide while the latter wound up just under Chicken Little's result at $314.0 million. More than anything else, what Disney and exhibitors came to accept is that the new tech worked well enough that the long existing goal of 3D cinema had become a reality.

As with any other situation involving expensive technology, the debate began about who should pay for it. Theater chains such as Regal Cinemas firmly stated that if distributors wanted to introduce such technology to North American audiences, they should be the ones who financed it. Distributors disagreed (natch). They felt that if the individual locations were the ones getting the upgrades, they should be the ones footing the bill. That argument is still a deadlock for the most part, but enough in-roads were made on compromise solutions that the number of RealD equipped theaters increased significantly in just a couple of years. By the time Robert Zemeckis' motion capture project, Beowulf, entered theaters, over a thousand locations were equipped with RealD technology.

The point of no looking back was the release of Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert, which was perfectly timed to ride the crest of the Hannah Montana wave. The movie ended a sizzling $31.1 million on its opening weekend despite being exhibited in only 683 locations. The explanation for the record-setting $45,561 per-location average for the February release was that most of the exhibitors for the film were RealD equipped. This meant that exhibitors were charging RealD ticket prices. You've surely noticed by now that those are higher than normal. A lot higher. The average movie ticket in 2008 was $7.18. 3D tickets usually cost double that and there are not always discounts for matinee exhibitions. Obviously, higher ticket pricing means higher movie revenue for the distributor; ergo, all distributors want to be in the business of making RealD movies.

Those of you who read Monday Morning Quarterback throughout 2009 (and if you didn't, you are now my sworn enemy) are aware that we tracked this phenomenon throughout the year. Depending on what qualifies under your definition of a wide release, there were between seven and ten RealD movies released in the period prior to 2009. Other than the disasters that were Fly Me to the Moon, the U2 concert film and the re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, every 3D title earned at least $65 million domestically. After last summer's Journey to the Center of the Earth seemed to run forever, winding up with $101.7 million after a modest $21.0 million debut, distributors decided it was time to go all-in on 3D.

There were as many 3D releases between January and July of 2009 as there had been in totality since the inception of the technology. Fifteen 3D titles made their debut during the calendar year. Not all of them were successful. You may not have even heard of Battle for Terra or Astro Boy. Judging by their box office, I would be surprised if you did. And Planet 51, a Sony release no less, didn't do much better. The Jonas Brothers also proved that they were no Hannah Montana. There was even an attempt at making extreme sports more exciting with X Games 3D, but it failed as well. That's five RealD releases that had a combined domestic total of only $80.8 million. If a distributor and exhibitor are spending the money required to utilize 3D technology, they damn sure better be getting a better rate of return than $20 million a release.

The 3D titles that did highlight the technology almost all seemed to blow up, though. The My Bloody Valentine remake demonstrated this. Its trailers heavily emphasized the in your face nature of the slicing and dicing the movie contained. The end result was that this, the first RealD release of over a thousand locations, had a surprising $21.2 million debut. Lionsgate confirmed that the 3D exhibitions were a factor of six (!) more lucrative than the regular ones. Not only were the ticket prices more expensive, the novelty of the movie-going experience had proved to be a draw as well.

The next large scale RealD release was Coraline, the theatrical adaptation of BOP fave Neil Gaiman's instant classic. The marketing for this title also heavily emphasized its 3D nature and the proof was in the pudding. After a modest but pleasantly surprising $16.8 million opening weekend, Coraline showed tremendous legs on the way to a final domestic tally of $75.3 million. This release also demonstrated the tightrope act that exhibitors face in deciding which products to sell at a given location at a given time. Due to the overwhelming success of Hannah Montana the previous year, many RealD equipped locations chose to take away exhibitions from Coraline and give them to the Jonas Brothers Concert Movie. That proved to be a costly mistake. The mega-expensive stadium theaters equipped with RealD technology were almost entirely empty while 2D showings of Coraline quietly plugged along at a cheaper ticket price. If you are going to pull one 3D release in order to display another one, you have to be absolutely certain that the new product will outsell the old product. Otherwise, the revenue losses in terms of opportunity cost are exponentially worse.

The most important moments for 3D up until December involved DreamWorks Animation and Pixar releases. Monsters Vs. Aliens was technically the second title from DreamWorks to feature RealD. It was, however, the first one to be released after they had announced the intention for all future releases from their studio to feature this technology. As such, its success was an imperative and that mission was accomplished. The sweet but bland title wound up only $1.7 million short of $200 million in domestic box office. It is currently the eighth most successful release of the year. Meanwhile, Pixar aka DreamWorks Animation++ also announced that all future releases would utilize RealD. Up was the first Pixar (not Disney) title to utilize the technology. Its box office soared to new heights thanks to the inflated ticket pricing, eventually winding up with $293 million in domestic revenue. That makes it the second most lucrative Pixar release to date. The studio followed Up with a double feature re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in order to highlight next year's release of Toy Story 3. Audiences threw another $30.6 million Pixar's way as a sign of gratitude for this decision.

A pair of other animation houses had tremendous success as well. Ice Age 3 earned a whopping $888 million worldwide for Fox. Sony counterbalanced the disappointment of Planet 51 with the relatively unheralded Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The theatrical adaptation of the Judi/Ron Barrett classic quietly accumulated $122.7 million in North America. Securing the animated front to the satisfaction of all of the major animation distributors is probably the most important achievement of 2009 for RealD, Avatar excluded since that will be a later Film Industry Story.

Overall, ten of the 15 major RealD releases of 2009 (not including Toy Story/Toy Story 2) earned at least $50 million domestically. Seven went on to accrue North American revenue in excess of $100 million. If we exclude the curve skewing Battle for Terra and X Games 3D: The Movie, which bombed out with under $2 million in domestic gross, the average 2009 RealD release earned a whopping $123.6 million and that numbers will go up a lot more as Avatar continues its box office ascent. In terms of global revenue, these films averaged a whopping total of $308.8 million, and Avatar will raise that total significantly before its run is finished.

While 2009 has been a coming out party for RealD technology, we are only at the beginning of this age of movie viewing. Intentions have already been announced and standards initially defined for a home television equipped to display the full 3D viewing experience. In addition, 20 releases currently scheduled for 2010 will feature this technology including potential box office heavyweights such as Alice in Wonderland, Rapunzel and Toy Story 3. Whether the technology proves to be a staple of the movie going experience or a flash in the pan as it was a few decades ago remains to be seen. For now, what is certain is that RealD releases have earned in excess of $4 billion worldwide in calendar 2009, a mammoth number that should only grow larger in calendar 2010.