Tech/Business NotesHollywood Eager to Feed China’s Appetite for 3-D
By Jonathan Landress, The New York Times
- Aug. 13, 2012
BEIJING — Zheng Huan and Tang Xiaomei, infrequent moviegoers from rural Jiangxi in southeast China, saw their first 3-D film last week while visiting the capital.
It was not James Cameron’s “Titanic 3-D,” the highest-grossing film here this year and the third highest of all time, with $153 million in ticket sales. Instead, it was a swirling martial arts fantasy, “Painted Skin II,” which Mr. Zheng said hurt his eyes but Ms. Tang said was captivating.
The two are a shade older than the 18- to 34-year-olds who made Mr. Cameron’s earlier 3-D hit, “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film in China, with $208 million in ticket sales. Hollywood is aggressively pursuing that age group now that China is the leading export market for its films in terms of box-office receipts.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Cameron’s 3-D technology company, the Cameron Pace Group, announced that it would set up shop in Tianjin, a northeastern port city, as part of a government-backed joint venture there. Last spring, Imax said it wanted to install 229 giant screens nationwide.
The initiatives underscore the extent to which American entertainment that makes the viewer part of the show has gained a foothold in the Chinese market. With movie tickets costing as much as 120 renminbi ($19) for 3-D and 180 renminbi ($28) for Imax, these American technologies are delivering content to Chinese consumers who are increasingly focused on authenticity and a high-quality theater experience that cannot be pirated.
Currently, 7,000 of China’s 11,000 screens are 3-D capable. RealD, a 3-D technology company based in Beverly Hills, said it had nearly 750 3-D screens across China and planned to install 1,250 in the coming years.
In 2008, two 3-D films were shown in China; roughly 30 will appear in the country by the end of 2012. From January to June, 21 3-D films — 13 percent of all 159 theatrical releases — accounted for 46 percent of the box office gross, according to data from Artisan Gateway, a Shanghai-based film consulting firm.
“The beauty of it is that in rural China, you’ve got theaters that might be the first theater that people attend in their lives and it’s a digital 3-D theater,” Mr. Cameron said last week. “They’re skipping the 20th century and going straight to the 21st. Putting the glasses on won’t be strange to them because that’s just how you watch movies. In the urban markets, they associate the glasses with the premium viewing experience.”
He likens the transition to 3-D in China to the evolution from black and white to color movies in the West. Though the shift from silent films to “talkies” was rapid in the late 1920s, the move to color took about 25 years. Mr. Cameron expressed hope that the move to 3-D would be even faster in China, perhaps over 10 years.
He is betting on China’s focus on things that are new and technologically sophisticated, a contrast to North America, where moviegoers have received 3-D tentatively. Box-office revenue from 3-D films in North America dropped 18 percent from 2010 to 2011, though the 2010 figures included “Avatar,” the first 3-D film to reach $1 billion worldwide.
China’s government is encouraging more expensive entertainment options as it strives to shift its economy toward consumerism from manufacturing. In February, China further opened its market to foreign films, letting studios release an additional 14 films (for a total of 34) if they are 3-D or in a large format like Imax.
One obstacle to 3-D films in China is the omnipresent subtitles that make all movies accessible to viewers who speak any of hundreds of regional dialects.
“I feel a little bit tired because my eyes are not quite comfortable,” said Mr. Zheng after a 55 renminbi ($9) matinee last Thursday. “But when I take off the glasses, I can’t see the subtitles clearly.”
With subtitles in the foreground, tricking the eyes into seeing 3-D depth beyond them without causing headaches is a challenge. One solution is to keep expensive projector bulbs turned up high to help eyes adjust. But each bulb costs roughly 5,000 renminbi ($790) and theater owners tend to try to stretch their typical two-week life span. Another solution is to make live 3-D films, shot with two cameras at once, rather than rely on conversions — films shot in regular format, then altered in postproduction. Live 3-D can be easier on the eyes.
“We’re absolutely trying to do live 3-D, but think that for now the best way forward is to do a combination of live and conversion,” said Shen Hongxiang, chief operating officer of Beijing-based Soul Power 3-D, which converted “Painted Skin II” from 2-D. “It’s cheaper and will still produce high quality 3-D.” “Painted Skin II” is the highest-grossing Chinese-language film of all time, with ticket sales of more than $114 million as of Aug. 5.
Overseeing 170 young Chinese software engineers split between Beijing and Wuxi, near Shanghai, five-year-old Soul Power has made a business of converting Hollywood fare like the Weinstein Company’s “Piranha 3-D.”
“Working with Hollywood companies, we discovered that there are different needs,” Mr. Shen said. “Hollywood wants the audience to see what the eyes see, but the Chinese audience still wants things to fly out at them. Chinese directors must study the differences between 2-D and 3-D and learn to speak the language.”
Michael Peyser, a professor of filmmaking at the University of Southern California and co-producer of the rock concert film “U2 3D,” which is considered among the best examples of live 3-D, said that China was where 3-D would thrive. “China has tens of thousands of digital artists ready to learn 3-D, not just writers, but visual storytellers picking up these new brushes for the first time, ready to paint,” he said.
He cited the longtime Hong Kong director Tsui Hark as a live 3-D pioneer for Chinese filmmakers, who are also exploiting the business and entertainment potential of 3-D.
Mr. Hark’s “ ‘The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate’ has all sorts of swooping action and seemed almost to be poking fun at itself,” Mr. Peyser said, respectfully. “Filmmakers must learn to know what the eye will allow and what it won’t reject. The goal should be to make the most wonderful magic carpet ride while making sure the audience doesn’t fall off.”
“Flying Swords” cost $30 million to make in 3-D and grossed roughly $94 million last year.
The Cameron Pace Group says China’s film world is just the beginning of its new venture in Tianjin. Mr. Cameron and his partner, Vincent Pace, have their eyes on China’s 500 million TV sets and the forecasts Chinese will buy 20 million 3-D-capable sets by the end of 2012. The Cameron Pace Group already helps ESPN show college sports in 3-D, and the group is in talks with China Central Television and other state-run broadcasters about helping their 3-D TV initiatives.
“It’s not singular events we’re focused on, not individual films,” Mr. Pace said. “It’s about a shift in the market towards products being more and more profitable. Our philosophy is that everything is elevated when done correctly in 3-D.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/business/global/us-filmmakers-eager-to-feed-chinas-appetite-for-3-d.html?_r=1&ref=technology