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How Disney was able to turn "Chicken Little" into a 3D smash

How Disney was able to turn "Chicken Little" into a 3D smash

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Paul Holliman, LFCA [Large Format Cinema Association] Vice-President and Board Member stepped down from the Board prior to the summer Board meeting which took place in Dallas on June 24th. With exciting new opportunities and increased responsibilities at Buena Vista/Disney, Paul expressed the need to consolidate his focus. Paul continues his active involvement in the LF [large format] business, and remains a member of the Association. He has been a valuable contributor to the LFCA during his three years on the Board, serving admirably as Conference Chair in 2004. The Board acceted his resignation with regret. We remain grateful for his valuable input and contribution of time and energy during his tenure.

-- LFCA JULY ENEWS

I first met Paul Holliman in Fall, 1999, as Disney was preparing to enter the large format film market. At that time, only one other major studio had been involved in producing and distributing large format films, SONY Pictures Classics, but their films were original productions for the IMAX screen. What Disney was about to do was different. For four months straight, practically every IMAX theater in the country would be showing one film and one film only: "Fantasia 2000." Under the guidance of Holliman, Disney would take a revolutionary approach to this project. This was a film intended for regular 35mm exhibition, but converted to large format and exclusively shown in IMAX theaters during those first four months. For this large format first, Disney introduced high-end marketing, extensive educational materials, and a Disney group sales reservations 800 line. Nothing of this caliber had ever been seen by the large format film community.

The IMAX version of the film was an outright success, outshining the conventional 35mm version that was released that summer. Later, Holliman's team would release large format versions of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," the original productions "Ultimate X," "Sacred Planet," and "The Young Black Stallion," and the James Cameron 3D hits "Ghosts of the Abyss" and "Aliens of the Deep." With "Treasure Planet," the first film to be released simultaneously in 35mm, digital, and large format cinema, the large format version, per screen, earned three times as much as the other versions. Holliman's team has one more film in the pipeline, "Roving Mars," which may very well be the last IMAX film distributed by Disney.

But at the recent Giant Screen Theater Association meeting in Boston, Holliman was nowhere to be seen. Was this Disney executive, who had pioneered the release of commercial films in IMAX theaters, afraid to attend the conference, knowing that Disney was pulling out of large format? Holliman was indeed Chicken, but in a much different way. If you look at the timing for Holliman's departure from the LFCA, it coalesces with Disney's announcement of "Chicken Little" being released in digital 3D cinema. That's right. Holliman is the secret weapon behind "Chicken Little" 's success in 3D.

And what a success it is. The film is estimated to have earned $40.9 million its first weekend, including $2.1 million in digital 3D. That's the same amount that Polar Express earned its first Friday - Saturday in IMAX 3D this time last year. One theater, Regal's Union Square Stadium 14 in Manhattan, is showing the film in digital 3D in two auditoriums, whose combined seating is less than the single auditorium showing the film in 2D 35mm. However, the number of 3D tickets sold is twice those of the regular version.

It's remarkable that Disney has been able to put together this project in such a short time. Last May, I spoke with my colleague Ray Zone, one of the premiere experts on 3D, about why "The Incredibles" had not been prepared in 3D. According to Zone, so much data is compiled during the production of a computer animated film that the animators tend to throw away older data in order to free up room in their processors for newer data. Think of this along the lines of how in the 1930's, animation cells were washed off and reused. But with "Chicken Little," Disney was able, in conjunction with Industrial Light and Magic, to convert the film into left and right eye points of view in only four months. This is roughly half the time it took to convert "The Polar Express" into 3D.

The Disney team also worked with Dolby and REAL D to put 85 digital 3D systems into the market within only four months. When they ran out of projectors from Christie, they purchaed projectors form Barco, buying practically every available 2K digital cinema projector in North America. The final few systems were installed only days before the premiere of the digital 3D version.

But to say that Disney wanted this 3D version simply to save "Chicken Little," a movie with poor pre-distribution press, much less post-distribution criticism, is to say that one doesn't acknowledge Disney's contribution to the digital realm. The film industry has recorded "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" as being the first digital release, in 1999. However, in the same year, Disney conducted a digital cinema experiment with Texas Instruments and Technicolor on around 40 screens. From this experiment, the industry learned that (and this is per Universal's head of technology, Jerry Pierce) consumers like digital cinema, Texas Instruments' DLP technology works, and a standard needed to be established.

To establish this standard, Disney joined with the other six major studios (MGM, SONY, Universal, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Fox) to create Digital Cinema Inititiatives. The DCI specifications for digital cinema were released this past Summer.

In addition to the 1999 experiment and their participation in DCI, Disney was the first to provide satelite transmission of a digital film. In 2000, the Miramax film "Bounce" was transmitted from El Segundo, California to a theater in Times Square. Many of the films released at Disney's El Capitan have been shown in digital, as have almost all of the company's animated films over the past five years. Recent restorations have also been shown in digital cinema projection prior to their release on DVD, including "Bambi" at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the Oscar guys) and Cinderella at the El Capitan. Disney has also signed agreements with both Technicolor and the Christie/Access Integrated Technologies joint venture to distribute films digitally. For the latter, they expect to release between fourteen to eighteen films per year starting next year.

Disney has also conducted more than an hour of tests with In-Three, the company that is converting all six "Star Wars" films into 3D for presentation in digital cinema. At this year's ShoWest, a major industry conference held every March in Las Vegas, In-Three showed a 3D clip from "Lilo and Stitch." During our visit to In-Three in May, Ray Zone and I also saw converted clips from "Treasure Planet" and "Tuck Everlasting," the latter a scene which Ray said would be virtually impossible to shoot in 3D.

So "Chicken Little" not only carries forth Disney's legacy in digital cinema, but carries forth the legacy that Paul Holliman has brought from Disney's releases in large format. So successful has this been that Disney has confirmed "Meet the Robinsons" will be released in digital 3D next year as well. However, when that happens, there won't just be 85 digital 3D theaters. There will be thousands.

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