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ThE MaStEr

The truth about 3D Blu-rayDirector James Cameron was bang on the money when he declared his revolutionary sci-fi epic Avatar would be a game-changer.

Moviegoers queued round the block to get a glimpse of Pandora in glorious 3D, propelling the movie to a record-pulverising box-office take of almost $3 billion.

The reason, Cameron reckons, was quite simple: "Where they had a choice the audience was selecting the best possible way to see the movie, and they saw 3D as the premium viewing experience."

Producer Jon Landau claimed that the movie had "restored belief that cinema can be a magical experience," and other studios were falling over themselves to capture some three-dimensional lightning in a bottle.

CLOUDY: The world's first stand-alone 3D Blu-ray, which is also bundled with Sony kit

Warner Bros. trotted out a conversion job on Louis Letterier's Clash Of The Titans remake, while Disney can thank Alice In Wonderland for it's second $1 billion box-office haul.

3D on the big screen has been an enormous hit, but will we get the benefits of that third dimension in our front rooms? This year has seen the arrival of a raft of 3D home entertainment gear from the likes of Panasonic, Sony and Samsung and a recent survey commissioned by the British Video Association (BVA) 63 per cent of 3D cinema goers would be interested in recreating the experience at home. The problem is, the 3D Blu-ray shelf is a little bare.

Increasing choice

Right now, if you want to watch a 3D Blu-ray movie at home your choice is Dreamworks' Monsters vs Aliens, which is only available as part of Samsung's 3D starter kit, or Sony Pictures' Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which arrived earlier this month and comes bundled with Sony's new range of 3D TVs and Blu-ray players.

Dreamworks is, however, hoping to release the Shrek films later this year, which will also be part of Samsung's year-long exclusive deal with the studio. Although this essentially means that only Samsung customers can get their hands on Dreamworks titles, CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is positive about the format's progress.

"It is an incredibly exciting time for the industry at large," he said at a recent 3D launch event in New York. "Thanks to Samsung's innovation leading the charge," Katzenberg declared, there was now "the capability to deliver a truly premium 3D experience for consumers in their homes."

Lexine Wong, Senior Executive Vice President, Worldwide Marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, is equally effusive about 3D Blu-ray's future. "Beginning this year Sony Pictures Home Entertainment plans to release all of our studio's 3D theatrical films to Blu-ray 3D" she revealed, announcing some big titles in the pipeline.

"Our initial slate will draw from our catalogue of 'native' 3D content – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Open Season, Monster House – as well as upcoming 3D theatrical releases like Resident Evil: Afterlife, Green Hornet and Men In Black III."

So it seems that a stunning 3D Blu-ray collection isn't too far off, after all. Crucially, though, animation is emerging as the key element to the 3D Blu-ray release schedules. For one particular studio this comes as no surprise.

Disney in the lead

"Disney has produced and released more 3D content than any other major studio to date," says Bob Chapek, President of Distribution for The Walt Disney Studios. According to Chapek Disney plans to "offer consumers an incredible line-up of true three-dimensional films and footage that will revolutionise the in-home entertainment experience."

So far that line-up consists of Robert Zemekis' A Christmas Carol, which has been confirmed for the end of 2010, and a 3D showcase disc featuring classic 1953 short Working For Peanuts. It will also show off trailers for Alice In Wonderland and Toy Story 3, suggesting they are not too far from getting an official release date of their own.

While it makes financial sense for studios to concentrate on existing 3D material, which is principally animation, Yves Caillaud, Chairman of the Board of Directors for The Digital Entertainment Group Europe believes we'll be seeing a lot more than just digital characters.

"Our view is titles which have a spectacular visual element will be the most greatly enhanced by 3D – so yes animation, but also movies that feature action packed sequences such as Clash Of The Titans, and stunning natural surroundings such as nature documentaries. There are many film genres which would be great viewed in the 3D format."

GAME CHANGER: Avatar, the film that kick started the 3D revolution, could change the fortunes of Blu-ray 3D

For this revolutionary visual spectacle, home entertainment fans will be expected to pay more. However, according to Sony this shouldn't come as a big shock, as we are already are paying more.

"At theatres, consumers are now used to the idea of paying a modest up-charge to see a movie in 3D, and we do feel that that expectation will carry over to Blu-ray 3D" Says Lexine Wong, while Simon Heller from the BVA agrees that all entertainment innovations carry a premium.

"As with all new technologies, the first players and discs will be higher priced on launch to off-set the investment. However, as 3D becomes more mass market, then we will see prices fall as we have seen with BD and DVD."

Sony has also confirmed 2D and 3D DVD/BD combi-packs, and they are currently exploring options for 3D special features and bonus content in a bid to add value to the package.

How big will Blu-ray 3D be?

Simon Heller also believes it will be a bit of a slow start for 3D BD. "If the launch of DVD is replicated, there will be only tens of titles released initially as replication costs are high to start with," although he does predict growth within the sector. More importantly, though, how big is the sector?

Blu-ray only accounted for 8 million disc sales in 2009 in the UK (compared to DVD's 235 million), and although it is growing at a faster rate than DVD did at launch one could easily deride 3D as a niche within a niche.

There's also the fact that industry forecasts for 3D TV sales over the next few years are conservative at best. "All markets have to start somewhere," Heller concludes.

And what of the movie that started it all? Arguably Avatar could have the 'Matrix' effect on 3D Blu-ray, but according to 20th Century Fox it remains in the "conceptual" stage. They're also being pretty tight-lipped about their 3D plans, with only Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs confirmed on the slate, arriving as part of a Panasonic bundle.

As for Cameron, well, he's certain that great releases are vital to the success of 3D. "If you play all the 3D movies in existence on your fancy new 3D TV, it will keep you entertained for about three days," he says.

"This content gap is the biggest hurdle for the rapid adoption of 3D TV." We are not playing an entirely different game just yet, then.

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