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Cinema rolls big-budget dice on 3-D Add to ...

After months of anticipation - and a rumoured $300-million (U.S.) - the lithe, glittering blue creatures of James Cameron's Avatar will finally take over the silver screen.

It took a director of Mr. Cameron's clout to raise the money to construct the lush world of his newest, most extravagant epic, which opens in theatres this weekend. But the entertainment industry is also hoping he'll be able to deliver not just a box-office winner but a significant boost to a burgeoning movie trend: 3-D.

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Avatar is not the first major release to bank on the growing popularity of 3-D technology.

Releases like Up and Ice Age capitalized on its appeal with younger audiences. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive officer of DreamWorks SKG, which made such kids' hits as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda , is so convinced of the marketability of 3-D for children's movies that he said last year his studio's future animation releases would all be in 3-D.

But with Avatar , Mr. Cameron hopes to elevate the technology beyond family fare and the occasional horror movie and bring it to the mainstream.

The Canadian director has sent a message: 3-D is not a niche technology, it's the future of film.

Mr. Cameron and his backers have bet a lot on this claim. If the rumoured price tag is accurate, Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made. Theatres have been spending too, ramping up their capacity to show 3-D movies in preparation for Mr. Cameron's latest behemoth and in response to the growing number of releases the industry has already been rolling out. That's a major investment by the theatres, and a big bet on 3-D production as a way to counter increased competition from the Internet and other sources.

To show 3-D movies, those theatres need digital screens. Canada's dominant theatre chain, Cineplex, has installed 190 digital screens so far; 149 of those are equipped for 3-D showings. It's a small number compared to the 1,329 screens Cineplex owns across the country, but this year alone, the company has tripled the number of 3-D screens, and there is at least one 3-D screen at nearly 70 per cent of its locations.

There's also a major payout. This has been a record year for attendance, said Pat Marshall of Cineplex Entertainment LP. In the third quarter of 2009, box office revenue reached $155.9-million at parent Cineplex Galaxy Income Fund, the highest quarterly revenue since its inception.

The more customers Cineplex can draw into its 3-D theatres, the better. The chain charges $3 more per ticket over the regular two-dimensional offerings. A movie like Avatar, which is tailored specifically for 3-D, could be a big windfall for the chain if viewers are willing to pay more for the full experience.

"The reviews have all been very, very positive. This is the sort of movie that's just going to continue to build over time," Ms. Marshall said. "So I think you'll see good numbers coming out of the opening, but you'll continue to see really good numbers over the next several weeks - which is a little more atypical for the way movies traditionally open."

The TV industry is also trying to latch on to the momentum Avatar could generate for the industry. On Wednesday, just ahead of opening weekend, Sony Corp. announced an agreement to license some of the 3-D technology and equipment made by RealD, which provides the 3-D systems for Cineplex and in most other movie theatres.

It's easy to see why a 3-D expansion in theatres would trickle down to the TV business: a typical movie takes in only about 20 per cent of its revenue at the box office while consumers purchasing DVDs to bring that movie home can account for as much as 65 per cent.

Those revenues will give studios a compelling reason to push their 3-D releases on DVD. If consumers follow suit, TV manufacturers will need to make their products compatible with the trend, or be left behind. Sony had already announced it wanted to put 3-D systems on its popular PlayStation game console and the Bravia TV. This week's deal takes the company one step closer - with the possible bonus of enticing some consumers to upgrade their home theatre systems.

The LCD panel on Sony's Bravia television "will work in sync with new 3-D eyewear based on RealD's technology," said Sony executive Hiroshi Yoshioka in a statement. "We are excited to work with RealD in bringing 3-D to the home."

It will be a while before viewers can bring Avatar home. Industry executives are hoping for a long run in theatres. How long the excitement lasts will help to show how big the audience is for 3-D movies among teens and adults.

It will most likely also determine if studios invest more in making films that use the technology to tell stories - or if it's a novelty that works for animated romps and slasher flicks, and not much else.

If the conversations that Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob has been having with the players in Hollywood are any indication, the pocketbooks are already out, Ms. Marshall said.

"There are a lot of industry folks looking at this film and looking to see what they should be doing in the 3-D genre moving forward. I would imagine it will only continue to grow."

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