If any event caused the 3-D push to snowball, it was The Polar Express
. The 2004 Warner Bros. holiday fantasy directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future
) that employs performance-capture animation — which uses sensors to duplicate an actor's moves— earned mixed reviews and barely left the station when shown in 2-D.
But it became a box-office bullet train as the first Hollywood feature to get the IMAX 3-D treatment, pulling in $45 million worldwide in its first run. It's now expected to be a perennial yuletide attraction at the large-screen theaters after a successful return last year.
"I've watched as people grab at the snow or felt like they are riding a roller coaster on a train track," says Greg Foster, president and chairman of filmed entertainment at IMAX, whose first serious stab at Hollywood dollars beyond animated features was a digitally spiffed-up re-release of Apollo 13
in 2002 (domestic gross so far: $1.8 million). "You won't notice the audience grabbing at images at non-IMAX 3-D films. We offer the highest level of immersiveness."
Immersion is one thing. But do they give away souvenir glasses that look like those worn by a nerdy little bird, like Disney did?
The studio, whose dominance in the feature-cartoon field has diminished in the face of heavy competition, took notice of the enthusiastic reception given Polar Express
and quickly hatched the idea to release its 2005 computer-animated Chicken Little
in both 3-D and 2-D. Instead of IMAX, they showed the 3-D version at regular theaters enhanced with digital projection.
That required some initiative, since barely any theaters were 3-D ready. The studio's smartest move was to share costs and partner with 81 theaters to install a digital system by Real D that requires only one projector. As a result, the 3-D Chicken Little
clucked up $7.4 million domestically, which meant 10% of its gross came from less than 2% of the theaters showing the film.
"Only a handful of locations had the right projectors out there when we originally did this. Now the number is heading towards 200 and could soon be 300," says Chuck Viane, head of distribution.
The next Disney film to go dimensional will be a re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas
, the stop-motion classic from 1993, due Oct. 20. A 3-D version of a brand-new computer-animated time-travel yarn, Meet the Robinsons
, will land next March 30.
"If you play this up as a gimmick, you go nowhere," Viane says of Disney's commitment to 3-D. "It's an enhancement to the experience. The dream is always to give them more than they expect."