If Jeffrey Katzenberg has his way, the theater-going experience everyone will be craving this year is digital 3-D, with two Super Bowl commercials -- for DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens" and the SoBe Lifewater lizards -- as an in-your-face invitation to put on your 3-D glasses and get onboard.
Mr. Katzenberg -- the "K" in DreamWorks SKG and the head of the studio's animation arm -- had his "Eureka!" moment during a screening of the animated "The Polar Express" 31/2 years ago. It was in an IMAX 3-D theater and when the show was done, Mr. Katzenberg was on the phone to his team, declaring he had seen the future, and it was 3-D.
"I think this is the most revolutionary thing that has happened to the theater-going experience since the introduction of color 70 years ago," he said by phone last week. "If you think about what that meant going to see a movie in black and white and then seeing it in technicolor, that's how big an improvement [it is] watching a movie in a standard presentation and then watching it in this new 3-D presentation."
Mr. Katzenberg knows that it takes a special experience to lure most people into a movie theater these days, especially when it's so easy for fans to cozy up to their couches and watch a recently released movie on a big-screen, hi-def TV with surround sound and a pause button for bathroom breaks.
Just as technology might be keeping you home, it also might be just the thing to lure you back into theaters. That's why more and more features are being made available in the huge-screen IMAX format. And that's why as you watch the Super Bowl next Sunday, monsters, aliens and lizards will be jumping off your screen and into your living room.
The studio's "Monsters vs. Aliens" is among an estimated 30 films that will be available in 3-D (not necessarily IMAX 3-D) in 2009. Brandon Gray of the Internet site boxofficemojo.com said the number of theaters equipped to show 3-D films is growing, from 982 when Disney's animated "Bolt" made a 3-D splash in November to 1,033 for the recent release "My Bloody Valentine," the latter a horror film shot in Western Pennsylvania.
The technology on the big screen is different than what you'll see on your TV sets -- you'll need anaglyph 3-D glasses to watch the commercials as part of the ad parade during the Steelers-Cardinals NFL championship game. PepsiCo, through its SoBe Lifewater brand, is making 125 million glasses available at some retail displays. (In our area, they are listed as being available at some Kmart, Target and CVS stores. If they are unavailable at a retailer near you, call 1-800-646-2904 to obtain a pair.)
The glasses will look familiar to anyone who has been to a 3-D film in years past, with one blue lens and one red lens for the ColorCode process.
ColorCode "is a significantly higher quality performance in this anaglyph format, which can be broadcast on live television without anyone having to get any new equipment. And that's what's great about it," Mr. Katzenberg said.
The 90-second "Monsters vs. Aliens" TV spot looks "pretty fantastic," he said. "But compared to the movie experience, and what we're able to do in a controlled theater environment ... that's like being at the Super Bowl live. The difference between what you're going to see at home [vs. at the movies] is if we could all go, 100 million of us, go to watch the Super Bowl live."
The in-theater 3-D format used by DreamWorks is called InTru, while Disney uses the Real D format. Both require polarized lenses that separate the left and right images to create the 3-D illusion. The theater must be equipped with 3-D projection as well, and some of the cost is passed on to the movie-goer: a ticket to a 3-D film can cost as much as $3 to $5 more than a movie in the traditional format.
In our region, among the theaters offering 3-D projection are Showcase Cinemas West, Robinson, and Showcase North, McCandless; Cinemark 18, The Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills, Frazer; Penn Hills Cinema; and Carmike theaters in Pleasant Hills, Bethel Park, Cranberry and Greensburg. The new IMAX theater at AMC Loews at the Waterfront, Homestead, will have 3-D capabilities.
"I love to see movies in theaters. To me, that's the treat of movie-going," Mr. Katzenberg said. "And I had never experienced the feeling I had seeing 'Polar Express.' And even though what we can do today has improved upon that by several generations, it just completely blew me away. It was the most exciting experience I'd had in a movie theater."
What InTru 3-D can do, he added, "will take your breath away."
Movie-goers will have the chance to test him at his word: "Every movie we are making, from here forward, including the next Shrek movie next year and two other movies we're making ... at DreamWorks Animation will be offered in the theater in 3-D."
"Monsters vs. Aliens," about monsters who are called on to save Earth from an alien invasion, leaps off screens on March 27. Arriving on Feb. 6 is another 3-D entry, Universal and Focus Features' "Coraline," a horror-fantasy tale by Neil Gaiman translated to stop-motion animation.
Mr. Katzenberg isn't so over the moon about 3-D that he doesn't acknowledge that story will always come first. Mr. Gray of boxofficemojo.com agrees.
"It's clear that 3-D helped buoy 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' over the summertime, and definitely adds an allure to these movies," he said, "but then again the movies themselves have to be appealing. If it's just about the things coming at them from the screen, [movie-goers] are going to quickly grow tired of that."
Mr. Gray notes that IMAX and 3-D gained ground last year, but attendance was still slightly down overall for the film industry. "For several movies, 3-D theaters clearly outgrossed their 2-D theaters, and that's a positive sign. But ultimately," he concluded, "it's the [quality] of the movie itself."
Still, everyone seems to want a piece of 3-D. CNN, for example, asked people to send digital images of "The Moment" -- when Barack Obama was sworn in as president at noon Tuesday -- and, using a Microsoft process called Photosynth, took those 2-D photos to build an image with lifelike depth.
Television's turn doesn't stop with the Super Bowl commercials. NBC, which will air the big game, follows the next night with a 3-D episode of its romcom series "Chuck," featuring former Steeler and NBC Sports analyst Jerome Bettis.
For all of the football fans tuned in to the Steelers-Cardinals showdown, Mr. Kaztenberg suggests they have their glasses ready and prepare to be amazed by the improvements in 3-D on TV.
But just in case you can't get your hands on glasses in time for the game ...
"Now, I will tell you that this system works incredibly well with the glasses but I'm pretty sure that if you just simply have two beers, it probably looks pretty interesting, too," he said. "I'm not a beer drinker, but I'm kind of guessing, watching ColorCode, two beers, no glasses, we're still gonna rock ya."
Sharon Eberson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1960.