We’re in the midst of a blast of news regarding upcoming animated projects this morning, and Dreamworks Animation aims to be the one that trumps them all. They’re putting all of their eggs in the basket of digital 3-D animation starting in 2009, which is about when they expect that the wide distribution of digital 3-D animated films will be viable. This would mean that these pictures don’t just have the odd 3-D effect added in here and there so that kids can squirm in their seats when something lunges at them from the screen. We’re talking complete compliance with the 3-D format from concept to finished picture.

The first salvo to be fired looks to be the magnificently-titled Monsters vs. Aliens, which will start production this spring for a summer 2009 release. As you might expect, Dreamworks isn’t going to ignore that people like looking at movies on DVD these days, especially with kids flicks that parents can put on repeatedly to anesthetize their children for a few precious hours, so there will be a standard version of the film constructed for televisions and DVD players available as well.  

Currently, there are about 500 digital 3-D screens around the US, but they expect that to grow to several thousand by 2009. That’s not only due to natural progress, but also the scheduled 2009 arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar, which will use the same digital exhibition process. The big idea is that studios have to do something to differentiate themselves from standard films since people are increasingly staying home and watching DVDs in their home theaters. Though the production costs will be much higher, they expect to offset that with slightly higher ticket prices and renewed public interest.

While I applaud new technologies in cinema, I don’t think that digital 3-D films are necessarily going to be the answer for theatrical woes. Home theaters are fine, but what drives people away from theaters is the degradation of the moviegoing experience. With patrons increasingly rude, films exhibited by amateur projectionists, prices higher than ever, and audiences unattended by ushers, going to see a film these days can be as much of a burden as it is ostensibly an escape, if not more. And if digital 3-D films become commonplace, this poor theatrical experience will begin to taint them as well. This isn’t a grand mystery, people. I go to theatrical movies for the experience. The popcorn. The trailers. Theater seating. Great sound. Sometimes, for the communal experience as well. But I’m increasingly discerning about when and where I do this because going to an average theater on an opening weekend is asking for trouble. For a fraction of the cost of these 3-D pics, studios and theaters can band together for a new PR campaign along the lines of “Hey folks, we’ve listened to your complaints, made some changes, and now it’s okay to come back.” Then, it’s up to theaters to properly train projectionists, stop in-film phone calls and text messages, monitor every screening possible, and reform the experience so that it’s an enjoyable night out rather than a hellish punishment you expect people to pay for. Without that, I don’t think any new technology stands a chance of returning theatrical movie profits to the golden days of yore.