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Monday, October 31, 2005

`Chicken Little': T-minus four days

I had a chance to visit the projection booth of a Regal Cinemas in Dublin, Calif. yesterday to watch while a Dolby Labs technician put the finishing touches on the projection system that'll show `Chicken Little' starting this Friday. The top-line report is: they're scrambling to get everything ready in time. The gear - from companies like Barco, Christie, Dolby, and Real D - all seems to be working fine. It's just that some of it has been arriving late. Also, theaters have had to make some last-minute modifications, like adding electrical lines, cooling ducts, and even cutting new windows into the auditorium so that the digital projectors can sit alongside a standard 35 mm projector, which are suddenly looking endangered. There's also the matter of installing new silver screens in every auditorium that'll show the pic in 3-D.

Dolby applications engineer Gene Radzik is in charge of outfitting four theaters in the Bay Area, including the Metreon in San Francisco, and he told me they don't actually expect to receive the hard drives containing the movie until Wednesday or Thursday - "the 11th hour," he said. The Barco 2K projector being used at the Dublin theater just arrived from Belgium last week. There's also the issue of getting USB keychain drives to theater managers. These drives contain the secure key necessary to give the whole digital system the green light to start showing `Chicken Little.' (IE, no showings before 12:01 AM on Friday).

I saw a five minute test clip from the movie, chock full of action sequences. And I gotta say, it made me want to see more. (I laughed out loud at a clever `Raiders of the Lost Ark' reference.) The 3-D was crisp and clear and tightly-synched - it looked as good as the projections you see in theme parks. The glasses are comfortable and light - they didn't bother me at all.

In other poultry news:

Bruce Mohl had a piece ion `Chicken Little' n yesterday's Boston Globe. He says that there will actually now be 84, not 85 theaters outfitted for 3-D. He says theater owners are shelling out about $25,000 for modifications, including that silver screen (Dolby is paying for the $105,000 cost of the projectors and servers, and hoping to recoup those costs by charging a `toll' to studios who want to distribute their films digitally):

    Theaters, concerned about recouping their 3-D retrofit costs, are increasing admission prices for digital 3-D showings as much as 20 percent.
    National Amusements Inc.'s Showcase Cinemas is raising prices $2 on Fridays and Saturdays and $1.75 the rest of the week for ''Chicken Little" in 3-D at its Revere and Randolph megaplexes. Adults will pay $12 and children $9 on Fridays and Saturdays.

And the NY Times has a really astute piece by Laura Holson on what `Chicken Little's' success or failure means for the partnership between Disney and Pixar. She writes:

    Disney will get some of its pride back if "Chicken Little" is a hit, analysts say. But more important, a hit movie would show Wall Street and Mr. Jobs that Disney need not depend on Pixar for creation of new animated movie characters that could be adapted for theme park rides, consumer products and television. If the movie is not well received by critics or moviegoers - something that looks increasingly less likely given the favorable early word - Mr. Jobs will gain leverage, because Disney would be seen as needing Pixar to help create new stories to refresh its creative arsenal.

Finally, I've got a column in today's Globe about a handful of New England films that imagine themselves as rivals to Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks:

    In New England, at least three small animation start-ups are also scheming to join that elite clique. By using off-the-shelf software, rather than writing their own, and purchasing inexpensive hardware, they're trying to pull the price of producing a full-length animated feature down from the stratosphere. (''Chicken Little" has been estimated to have cost Disney about $60 million to make.)