Can UAE cinemas meet demand for 3D?

The highest-grossing films of the year so far are all in 3D. But with only a handful of 3D-capable screens, Dubai may struggle

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3D divides people. There are those who love it, and still more who hate it. Some say it enhances, others argue it distracts. But whichever side you’re on, there’s no denying 3D is pulling in the crowds; the top-grossing films of 2010 so far in the US are all 3D movies: Avatar, Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland, in that order. Dubai, too, has the 3D fever. Shrek Forever After is the biggest earner thus far at almost Dhs9 million and counting; it’s closely followed by fellow 3D contenders Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans.

It seems 3D’s monopoly over moviegoers isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. During a recent trip to the cinema, Time Out noted that every single pre-movie trailer declared its film would be available in 3D, with the likes of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia hopping merrily onto the bandwagon. But such saturation begs all sorts of questions. Why now? And can Dubai’s cinemas, which have only a handful of 3D-capable screens between them, meet demand?

Why now?
A lot of people are wondering why 3D is so suddenly making a comeback, considering the ‘golden era’ of 3D film was way back in the ’50s, and the younger among us tend to associate it with the ’80s and flimsy cardboard glasses. First, it’s all part of a wider evolution of cinema, where 35mm film is being replaced by digital projectors. Andy Fordham, project manager at Gulf Film and Grand Cinemas, explains. ‘Cinema has been undergoing a revolution since the early 2000s, whereby films are screened using digital projectors,’ he reveals. ‘This gives a much sharper picture, and the sound quality is unparalleled.’

This new digital technology has in turn brought about digital 3D, which Fordham explains is more advanced than ‘the outdated 35mm 3D technology where you had to wear those glasses with green and red lenses’. Add to that the impetus on Hollywood to raise its game in the face of widespread illegal downloading and provide an experience that cannot be achieve at home, and you have the modern-day 3D revolution. As a bonus, 3D is not only bringing people back to the cinema, but is encouraging them to pay more for the privilege. A typical Dubai cinema charges at least Dhs15 more for entry to a 3D film, which is why Prince of Persia is the biggest film in the UAE so far this year in terms of admissions, but Shrek Forever After has raked in more cash. As the general manager of a major regional distributor, who asked not to be named, explains: ‘The total admission of any movie released in 3D averages 65 to 75 per cent of the total income for the movie, while 35mm 2D is more like 25 to 35 per cent.’ So it’s no wonder studios are keen to release ever-more titles in 3D.

Can Dubai’s cinemas meet demand?
At the moment, no. Our mystery general manager tells us, ‘Most have one or two digital 3D screens, which means many 3D movies are dropped a few weeks after release to make way for the next 3D movie.’ He says this will not change until every cinema has four or five digital 3D screens, which means until then, Dubai cinemas are likely to be missing out on valuable 3D admissions.

But upgrading will require major investment. Cameron Mitchell, general manager of CineStar Middle East, says, ‘3D projectors and associated equipment is expensive. CineStar has eight 3D screens and to install digital 3D on the remaining screens will cost more than Dhs15 million.’ Mitchell adds that CineStar has to keep up with what the movie-going public is demanding, and is thus obliged to spend on upgrading. But in today’s economy, we wonder how achievable this is. 3D may be a Hollywood marketing tool to make more cash, but in Dubai’s case it seems it’s not that simple.
Next week: we examine how the 3D revolution will affect the UAE’s home-grown film industry

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