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CE industry hopes 'Avatar' is a hit

Good box office returns for the 3D film are expected to spur 3D entertainment from the theater to the living room.

Sony 3D demo
The success of "Avatar" could spur more consumers to buy 3D TVs for the home, once they become available. Scott Ard/CNET

Besides a $300 million budget and James Cameron's reputation, the movie "Avatar" is also heaving under the weight of the future of 3D entertainment.

When the uber-hyped 3D film opens on Friday, Hollywood studios will, of course, be closely watching the box office receipts. They won't be alone: the consumer electronics and cable television industries are also hoping for a blockbuster. If "Avatar" is a hit, it could be what pushes 3D from the movie theater to the living room.

Chock full of big-budget fodder like computer-generated creatures from another world, as well as live-action human actors, the film is getting positive reviews, especially for the technological achievement. Already it's been called "The Jazz Singer of 3D filmmaking," transforming 3D from a cheap Hollywood gimmick and embracing the full potential of what the technology can do.

The title itself, "Avatar," is a reference to the concept of a 3D image in a virtual world. Cameron's idea for the film has actually been germinating for more than a decade; he has said he was waiting for the technology to catch up to his vision. Now, he says, the time is finally here.

Filmmaker Twentieth Century Fox is offering Windows 7 users a custom theme for the movie "Avatar." Screenshot by Ina Fried/CNET

Leading up to the film's release, even a panel discussion on 3D at the Digital Living Room Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., earlier this week, the buzz was all about "Avatar." Not only because it's one of the rare 3D film for grown-ups, but because it has all the full force of 20th Century Fox's marketing department behind it.

"Many of us are expecting 'Avatar' to be the tipping point to the mainstream in the cinema. Hollywood will see 3D as a real business," said Pat Griffiths, senior director of technology for Dolby Laboratories, which provides the equipment to show 3D films to thousands of movie theaters around the world.

Though 3D film releases have been ramping up over the past few years, it's been primarily with animated flicks aimed at the youth market. Few studios have dared throw money at 3D for adults. But the recent box office returns for "Coraline," "Up," and "Bolt" have been promising. Last year, 3 percent of the movies released were filmed in 3D, but brought in 10 percent of the box office gross. Once "Avatar" hits, many in Hollywood are expecting even better. Next year there will be 24 films released in 3D, and more than 50 scheduled for the year after that.

If "Avatar" does well, studio heads will likely green light more 3D movies, which will generate more support for getting 3D standards for filming, recording, and playback, and sell 3D-compatible TVs and video players, which will make companies like Dolby and Sony and Panasonic, well, very happy. Many in the consumer electronics industry think this will be what will push 3D from the theaters and into the home.

"It's not just animation that's going to be a driver here," asked Andy Gellis, of Evergreen Films earlier this week. "Are you really going to buy (a new TV) to watch 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and 'Up'? Is that going to drive you to go out and change your whole (home theater) system?"

3D is "the new HD" a lot of industry types like to say. As in, now that HD is becoming fairly commonplace in North American homes, with estimates of 35 percent owning them. What new, bigger, better, faster technology will help TV makers sell more products? Right now, that's 3D. The more well-received movies that hit theaters in 3D, the more people will want to watch them again at home, and to do that, they'll need a 3D-compatible TV.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC, and others have said they'll have them. But it is admittedly a lot to ask people to rush out and buy a brand-new TV that can display 3D content when they start hitting store shelves next year, when many have probably just recently upgraded to an HDTV. But just as HD took several years to ramp up, so will 3D. It will certainly be a process, but that doesn't mean there won't be people interested in being the first to own a 3D TV, Gellis said.

"With all technologies there will be early adopters, people who can afford it," he said. "If programming is there that wows them, the it becomes something that people have to have."

Even if that means wearing the glasses, he says. While many people understand that wearing the plastic lenses in a dark theater is just part of the experience, there is some concern that wearing them sitting on the living room couch will be a strange proposition for some consumers, at least right now.

Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks Animation--one of Hollywood's chief evangelists of 3D--was famously quoted earlier this year predicting that we actually won't even need the glasses in "a handful of years." He might be getting ahead of himself. Though we have seen some small-scale versions of auto-stereoscopic displays at Ceatec, that technology applied to 50-inch television sets is likely further away than he thinks. "In a family viewing situation, it's going to be awhile," Dolby's Griffiths said.

Steve Shannon, executive vice president of RealD, a competitor of Dolby's, agreed. While he broadly agrees with Katzenberg's vision of 3D as the future of filmmaking, "the timeframe is a little aggressive."

"Consumers by and large haven't come around to the message the 3D is the future," Shannon said. "It'll take a while."

In the meantime, the consumer electronics industry is committed to helping consumers get more comfortable with the idea of 3D at home idea. It has been the dominant theme at most of the major tech trade shows around the world this year. And it looks like the industry will be stepping on the gas at CES next month too.

Several companies are expected to talk up 3D TVs and video players, and actually announce shipping dates. Sony just got a head start on it, confirming Thursday that not only will the PlayStation3 be a 3D gaming machine, but a 3D Blu-ray player as well.

And there's more to come even after CES. Early next year in the UK there will be a 24-hour 3D TV channel launching. And just like it was the "killer app" for HD, sports are expected to play a big role. This summer the biggest sporting event on the planet, the World Cup, is scheduled to be filmed in 3D, which will be huge for the format, according to a research note from analyst firm Futuresource: "Given the positive impact that this sporting festival always has on TV demand we can expect the retail trade to put its full weight behind 3D very quickly."