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A 3-D Future?

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

The first revolution in film was sound; the second was color. And according to Jeffrey Katzenberg the third – are you ready for this – will be 3-D. The head of DreamWorks Animation predicts that in the near future, audiences will expect films to be in 3-D the way they now expect them to have music and dialogue.

Katzenberg is only the biggest booster in an impressive list of big-time 3-D proponents. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis also seem to have drunk the 3-D Kool-Aid.

And while it's hard to imagine My Dinner with Andre – 3-D! – I have to admit that I am slowly coming around to their way of thinking – for both aesthetic and financial reasons.

First of all, I should say that if you haven't seen modern digital 3-D, you really have to hold your judgment. It's pretty remarkable, even for a queasy stomached, glasses wearer like myself. And we haven't even seen what's really possible. Right now, everyone's still so in love with the “wow” factor, they insist on making things constantly fly past your head. You get a neck ache just ducking. But sitting in the theater watching the stop-motion masterpiece Coraline, you can glimpse the future; the restrained use of 3-D lets you forget about the technology and become immersed into the film's magical world.

And it's that approach to the medium that will help bring about a 3-D future. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather sit at the table with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn while they're discussing the big issues than watch a movie about them discussing the big issues. And if you're a startled when they flambé the cherries jubilee at the next table over, well, so much the better.

If 3-D in fact is going to be the next revolution in film, filmmakers will have to get away from the showy stuff. Novelty wears off pretty quickly – especially with kids – and if 3-D doesn't become just another tool to draw compelling characters and tell compelling stories, we can expect it to go the way of smell-o-vision.

And that would be a tragedy, because 3-D has great artistic potential...and it could be the Viagra for Hollywood's flaccid bottom line. It's clear from box office results of films like Jeffrey DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens that 3-D is a real money maker. And that's with a limited number of 3-D screens. Right now, only about 5,000 of the 40,000-some movie screens in the US have digital projection and only about 2,000 of those can show 3-D films. Of course, at upwards of $75,000 per screen to upgrade to digital and another $25,000 or so to add 3-D, you can see why the exhibitors and the studios are a bit slow to want to get out their checkbooks. But considering how many 3-D titles are in production right now, they better work it out tout de suite or leave a lot of box-office bacon on the table.

And think about the home video implications! Hi-def Blu-ray discs have not proven to be the cure for Hollywood's DVD sales slump. People just don't see the need to shell out a ton of cash for a new DVD player and replacements for their DVD library for what is perceived to be an evolutionary – rather than revolutionary –improvement. But when 3-D becomes the norm in theaters, and then they figure out a way to make it a reality at home – and they will – well, you don't need special glasses to see the potential.

Speaking of glasses, the high cost of the special 3-D specs has become a point of contention lately between the exhibitors and the studios. But sooner than later, we'll all have our own 3-D glasses, and you can bet the designers will get on that band wagon. And you can bet your Prada 3-D's will work at home as well as in the theater.

And then the studios will certainly start to mine their libraries and re-release their classic titles in 3-D as well. Tara burning...in 3-D! The wicked witch's monkeys flying...in 3-D! Keanu Reeves acting... in 3-D! Finally he'll have some depth!

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman...in 3-D!

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