If Jeffrey Katzenberg ruled the universe and not just a film studio in Glendale, Calif. every movie, from titles to closing credits, would be in mind-blowing 3-D. No film executive has worked harder to realize Hollywood's age-old dream of manipulating people's visual cortexes with anaglyphic images. Since he announced in 2007 that all of DreamWorks' future animated films would be shot in 3-D, the CEO has been pushing exhibitors to adapt theaters for a multidimensional revolution. ''This represents a chance to reinvent what it means to go to a theater,'' he says.
He's not the only one itching to reinvent the movies. DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens, opening March 27, is just the beginning of a parade of 3-D movies soon to be messing with eyeballs in theaters all over the country. Over the next nine months, some of the biggest and most forward-thinking names in cinema will be employing a technology once used in B movies with titles like Cat-Women of the Moon. Among the 10 productions headed to 3-D screens between March and December: Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Jerry Bruckheimer's pet-shop spy comedy G-Force (with Penélope Cruz voicing a secret-agent guinea pig), and James Cameron's Avatar, the long-anticipated live-action and animation sci-fi adventure that the Titanic director has been laboring over for years. Even Steven Spielberg, long teased by George Lucas for resisting digital film, has climbed on board he's making a three-dimensional big-screen version of the Belgian comic Tintin with Peter Jackson.
The only nagging question is, will there be enough 3-D screens to show them all? Monsters vs. Aliens is expected to run on about 2,000 3-D screens, far short of the 4,000 Katzenberg had been hoping for when he greenlit the animated riff on 1950s sci-fi flicks. An additional 2,500 theaters will be showing Monsters vs. Aliens on regular screens, where the film can live the not-so-shabby life of a regular movie. It costs theaters about $25,000 to convert a single digital screen to 3-D, and finding money for 3-D conversions is difficult these days. ''The world is melting down around us we're not immune to it,'' Katzenberg says. Though the number of 3-D screens has doubled since last July, only about 5 percent of U.S. screens are currently 3-D equipped. With so few 3-D theaters, exhibitors have had to hustle 3-D movies on and off screens before they've finished making money. (The critically adored Coraline got replaced on 3-D screens by the Jonas Brothers concert movie after only three weeks.) ''For 3-D to be a good business model, you need a minimum of three auditoriums [per theater],'' says Chuck Viane, president of distribution at Disney which, like DreamWorks, is now making all of its animated movies in 3-D. ''You want to be able to hold over what's good and properly seat what's new.''
There's certainly no shortage of demand for 3-D movies (the Jonas Brothers in 3-D outperformed the 2-D version many times over, as did Coraline). And there's no denying that visual effects have come a long way since Vincent Price made audiences squeal simply by swiveling at the camera. Technology companies have poured millions into developing special silver screens and advanced digital effects to make 3-D so realistic you'd think you were fighting aliens right alongside the 50-foot woman. ''We didn't want it to be cheesy,'' says Monsters vs. Aliens codirector Conrad Vernon. ''We want you to feel more like you are in the movie, rather than watching 3-D.'' Jon Landau, Cameron's longtime producing partner, has the same hopes for Avatar. ''With Titanic, I would tell people we were using technology to make people feel a part of history,'' he says. ''With Avatar, we want to use technology to transport people to another world.''
A world, it just so happens, you can't yet get to at home or on your iPod. Which is the whole point. ''In order to bring people back to the movie theaters, we've got to do something exceptional we have to raise the bar,'' Katzenberg says of the strategy behind the 3-D surge. ''I really believe this could turn the tide Hollywood's way.'' Actually, the tide right now isn't looking so bad box office receipts are up 17 percent so far this year. But overall attendance trends continue to fall, and that's got Hollywood scrambling to keep people in their seats. ''Cinema reached its visual peak 50 years ago,'' says Landau. ''Nothing has improved since then. But we have a responsibility to continue to provide the communal cinemagoing experience.'' In other words, give it a whole new dimension.