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'Clash' of 3D movies to hit underprepared cinemas

Movies in 3D are becoming such big moneymakers that Hollywood studios are cramming them into the nation's theaters, even though there aren't enough screens available to give each film its fullest possible run.

That will mean an unprecedented number of 3D movies for film fans to choose from this spring, and smaller profits for Hollywood studios than they might otherwise get with fewer 3D competitors.

The pileup was created in part because studios want to capture some of the excitement surrounding "Avatar," the James Cameron epic released in December. At £1.55 billion in global ticket sales, it is the highest-grossing film ever. In addition to the novelty or richer experience that might drive more people to see a 3D movie, tickets to 3D movies also cost a few dollars more.

Around the time "Avatar" came out, Warner Bros. decided to convert a remake of "Clash of the Titans" from 2D to 3D and push its release back a week in the US.

That will be the third 3D movie to hit the market in a short span. DreamWorks Animation SKG's "How to Train Your Dragon" comes out a week earlier, and The Walt Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" hits US theatres 5 March. And "Avatar" might still be playing in some places too.

But a limited number of theaters can show these movies in 3D, because not all theater owners have bought new digital projectors and undertaken other upgrades necessary to show movies in the format. About 3,900 to 4,000 3D-ready screens are expected to be available in the US and Canada by the end of March. Typically a movie in wide release might be shown on 3,000 to 10,000 screens in North America.

In the past, a smaller number of 3D-capable screens was adequate when one major film at a time was being released in 3D in addition to 2D. Each movie had a longer run, and moviegoers who wanted to see it in 3D could pick a convenient time to go.

With three out at once, each will get less exposure because some theaters with only one or two 3D screens will have to choose which movies to show in 3D.

"One or all three are going to suffer in some way," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "It makes it a much harder decision on exhibitors on what to keep or what to drop or what to add and probably should have been avoided."

Because of the lack of sufficient 3D theaters, all three studios will also release 2D versions of their films, as they have in the past.

Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., said that even with the competition, his studio will still meet its revenue targets for the 3D version of "Clash of the Titans." If not for the 3D logjam, it might get even more.

"Maybe everyone won't have exactly the amount of screens they had wished for," Fellman said in an interview. "But it'll certainly be enough to cover all of the major markets."

Hollywood can also take solace in the fact that this spring's 3D screen count in North America is on pace to be twice what it was a year ago. That means that "Clash of the Titans" will have 50 per cent more 3-D screens available to it than the 800 used for "Journey to the Center of the Earth" two years ago.

"If you have a theater every six miles as opposed to every three miles, if you want to see it in 3D, you'll drive a couple of miles," Fellman said.

DreamWorks declined to comment on the situation. However, its 3D "Monsters vs. Aliens" took in $198 million (£128 million)
in North American theatres last year on half as many 3D screens as "How to Train Your Dragon" will have this spring. Even if the 3D screen count for "Dragon" drops 50 per cent on its second weekend, it'll be back to where "Monsters" began, with about 2,000 3D screens.

Earlier 3D films didn't have as many other 3D movies to compete against. "Journey to the Center of the Earth" had a free run of 3D screens for several months after its summer 2008 release. As more 3D movies came out in the following year, one movie would largely wind down when another came out.

For example, when "Monsters vs. Aliens" came out last March, the number of screens devoted to "Coraline," a 3D movie released the previous month, dropped 75 per cent.

This year, studios have to hope that movie fans are willing to spend extra to see more than one 3-D movie in a short period.

Chuck Viane, Disney's president of distribution, said that despite a "temporary shortfall of 3D screens," moviegoers are still primed for the experience.

There are 19 3D movies scheduled for release this year, including Disney's "Toy Story 3" and DreamWorks' "Shrek Forever After" and "Megamind."

The next time such a scheduling crunch will occur is 17 December, when both "Tron Legacy" and "Yogi Bear" will appear in 3D. The number of 3D screens in North America should reach around 5,000 by then, alleviating some of the problem.

Amy Miles, the chief executive of theater chain Regal Entertainment Group, told investors last week that many of the company's large multiplexes have two or three 3D screens, meaning competing 3D films will just have to play side by side.

After starting the year with 427 3D screens, the chain will have about 527 by the end of March and more than 1,000 by the end of the year, as a large round of financing is expected to come through. Converting each theatre screen costs about $70,000 (£45,400).

"Now that this has really become something that the public has responded to, everybody is moving in," said Fellman at Warner Bros. "By next year, this won't be a conversation."