‘Lion King’ 3-D Surprise Helps Hollywood Define Fans’ Taste

Hollywood’s search to find a winning formula for 3-D technology has returned to an enduring theme after some high-profile flops: start with the right movie.

Walt Disney Co.’s animated 1994 hit “The Lion King” has collected $61.5 million in the U.S. since it was reissued to cinemas in 3-D on Sept. 16, according to Hollywood.com Box-Office, a bright spot after bombs like “Green Lantern” and “Mars Needs Moms.” The results may ease concern that three-dimensional films aren’t living up to their billing, said James Cameron, whose 3-D “Avatar” is the top-grossing movie of all time.

“To turn around the trough of disillusionment, whatever its source is, we have to change the perception,” Cameron said at the 3D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles last week. “The way for us to work against that is to continue to have success stories.”

Studios will release 39 films in 3-D next year, up from 36 in 2011 and 23 in 2010, according to Screen Digest, a unit of Englewood, Colorado-based researcher IHS Inc. The number may change as studios tinker with schedules. In 2011, 3-D hasn’t been enough of a hit to lift U.S. theater attendance, which is down 5.6 percent as of Sept. 25. Sales are off 3.6 percent.

One lesson, studio executives say, is that 3-D effects alone won’t convince audiences into paying more, about $3 on average.

‘No Rule’

“You have to look at it on a picture-by-picture basis,” Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive officer of Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, said in an interview. “When it’s right for a movie, as it was for ‘Transformers,’ you go 3-D on a global basis. There is no rule.”

Tom Rothman, co-chairman of News Corp.’s Fox Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview that 3-D production is unlikely to expand beyond the 30 to 40 films now turned out by Hollywood. Most will be male-oriented genre films, he said.

“We’ve been very, very selective,” Rothman said at the summit. “We have a very good idea when it’s integral to the storytelling.”

In addition to “Avatar” sequels, Fox is developing 3-D movies including the Ridley Scott science-fiction film “Prometheus” and director Ang Lee’s “The Life of Pi.”

Lee convinced Fox to make the film in 3-D, arguing the technology would let him draw the audience into the small world of a shipwreck survivor who must share a lifeboat with a tiger, Rothman said.

Older Hits

“The Lion King” is the first in a number of 3-D conversions of older hit films. Cameron, Fox and Paramount are converting “Titanic” and Fox is doing the same with George Lucas’s “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” Both are scheduled for release next year, according to Hollywood.com.

Moneymakers like “Transformers,” which took in $1.12 billion to rank second this year, have been accompanied by disappointments. “Green Lantern,” from Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros., cost $200 million to make and has generated just $219.8 million worldwide, a sum the studio splits with theaters.

Disney’s animated “Mars Needs Moms,” made for $150 million, took in $39 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

The supply of 3-D screens has had an impact. Early entries, like “Avatar” and Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” opened with at least 70 percent of their domestic ticket revenue from 3-D cinemas. That fell to 45 percent for Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” which went on to be this year’s top-grossing film anyway.

3-D Competition

Cameron cites competition for 3-D screens. Paramount’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” was released on July 22, a week after “Harry Potter” opened. “Transformers” and “Cars 2” were also in theaters, according to Box Office Mojo.

Cinema operators are adding screens to alleviate the problem. RealD Inc. announced agreements in July to equip 1,000 screens for AMC Entertainment Inc. and 1,500 at Cinemark Holdings Inc. theaters.

Cameron predicts most movies will be shot in 3-D in the future as the technology is adopted in home entertainment, just as the onset of color TV hastened change in the film industry in the 1960s.

The director’s company, Cameron/Pace Group, has helped Disney’s ESPN cable channel televise more than 140 sporting events in 3-D with its proprietary equipment.

“Everything that happens in film will be driven by home video,” he said. “Once broadcast moves aggressively to 3-D, every movie will be in 3-D. It’s that simple.”

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