Who's cashing in the most from Hollywood's 3-D mania?
If you look up "3-D" in the dictionary, well, at least in my dictionary, you'll see a photo of Jeffrey Katzenberg next to this definition: "An attention-getting device, typically superficial, designed to promote the success of a product, in this case a gadget or ruse designed to get moviegoers to pay more money to see a new film."
With "Monsters vs. Aliens" making a ton of moolah at the box office over the weekend, largely from its 3-D screenings, which cost each moviegoer roughly $3 extra per ticket, exhibitors are expected to continue converting more theater screens to digital projection. The only question that remains is: Who's going to be the big financial winner in the 3-D gold rush: the studios distributing the films or the exhibitors playing them?
With most of the studio bigwigs in Las Vegas this week at ShoWest, we're beginning to see a new round of jockeying for position. The most fascinating example of cheerleading and belt-tightening -- all at the same time -- came from 20th Century Fox, courtesy of studio co-chairman Jim Gianopulos. On the one hand, he gave a keynote address urging exhibitors not to let a little thing like an economic collapse stop them from installing more 3-D screens, calling it "the most exciting new exhibition technology since they put sprocket holes in celluloid."
But on the other hand, according to a good story in Tuesday's Hollywood Reporter, Gianopulos' studio has been quietly telling exhibitors that they -- not Fox -- will have to foot the bill for the 3-D glasses moviegoers need to watch the films. The Reporter pegs that cost at $1 million-plus per picture. Until now, the studios have been paying for the glasses, allowing exhibitors to deduct the cost from what the studios collect from their split of ticket sales. AMC Theaters chief Gerry Lopez wasn't happy to hear about Fox's new hardline, saying: "It would be disappointing if such a promising technology would devolve into that kind of discussion right now. More unites exhibition and distribution than separates us, and we should focus on that."
I think a fair translation of that statement would be: "Guys, the turnips just fell off the truck. We finally had a movie that made a ton of extra money because a bunch of easy marks were willing to take a chance on this great gimmick. Why are you gonna squeeze us now?"
I called and emailed Gianopulos, eager to ask him the same question: Even if he believes the theater owners should foot the bill for 3-D glasses, why twist their arms now, when the 3-D phenomena is still in its infancy? Why not wait until it's better established, when there's enough revenue to go around to make everyone happy? If he ever calls me back, I'll happily post his side of the story. His competitors tell me that Fox, always the toughest studio in terms of death march-style negotiation tactics, is unwilling to set any precedents about paying for the glasses, especially with two hotly anticipated 3-D films coming this year -- "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" and Jim Cameron's "Avatar," which would give Fox a lot of leverage with exhibitors eager to play the films in their theaters.
We'll be following this issue as it unfolds, since you can always be assured that if there's a new pot of money to be made in the movie business, the elbowing for advantage will be fun to watch.
Photo of Jeffrey Katzenberg by Ronda Churchhill/Associated Press