With digital projection, IMAX screens and movies in 3-D all coming to a theater near you, 2009 could go down as the year that high-tech became the indisputably dominant force in American movie theaters.
No less an industry force than DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg, long the most vocal proponent of high-tech wizardry in moviemaking, is predicting that all movies may one day be shot in 3-D, and he's already decreed that all DreamWorks' animated films be shot using the extra-dimensional process. (Disney has the same plans.)
IMAX and the AMC theater chain are well along in their bid to put IMAX screens, with their bigger, brighter pictures and clearer sound, in multiplexes throughout the country.
The spread of both 3-D and IMAX is being made possible by the increasing popularity of digital projection, which eliminates the need for bulky (not to mention breakable) film spools.
And technical innovation affects more than simply how a film looks. Increased reliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI) continues to expand the realm of what can be shown onscreen. Filmmakers revel in pushing that envelope ever further.
"Time and money [are] the only barrier now," says Conrad Vernon, director of DreamWorks' animated Monsters vs. Aliens, set to debut in both 3-D and IMAX later this month. "You can pretty much take technology anywhere the mind can go."
As many as a dozen films are on tap for this year. Disney has four, including a Jonas Brothers' concert film (Feb. 27); Pixar's animated Up about a balloon salesman floating his way to South America (May 29); the animated G-Force, the story of guinea pigs trained in espionage (July 24); a re-release of Pixar's Toy Story (Oct. 6); and Disney's A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge.
Even horror movies, a staple of 3-D films during the 1950s and 1980s, will once again be jumping off the screen with My Bloody Valentine 3-D (Jan. 16).
Movies set to be released in the IMAX format include Alan Moore's Watchmen, in which a group of retired superheroes look to ease the Earth from the brink of Destruction (March 6, which could be affected by a lawsuit); Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (May 22); Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (June 26); and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 17).
The appeal of any Potter film, of course, extends way beyond high-tech expectations. This sixth entry in the Potter cinematic canon takes Harry into his sixth year at Hogwarts, as Dumbledore tries to prepare him for the final battle with Voldemort (and the final entry in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, to be spread over two films beginning in 2010).
As befits its status as the year's surest go-to film, Half-Blood Prince will be taking advantage of every new technology available - not only is it being released in IMAX in selected theaters, but moviegoers will be able to see it in 3-D as well.
But Harry Potter isn't the only big-time franchise player returning to the big screen this year.
Hollywood's favorite cyborgs from the future are back for a fourth installment in Terminator Salvation (May 22), with Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin and Bryce Dallas Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger was apparently too busy being governor of California to come out and play).
Steve Martin will return as Inspector Clouseau in Pink Panther Deux (Feb. 6). Tyler Perry gets himself incarcerated in Tyler Perry's Medea Goes to Jail (Feb. 20). Director Guy Ritchie will try to make a 21st-century franchise out of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. as the famously logical detective and Jude Law as his Dr. Watson (Nov. 20).
Hoping to mine some big bucks from a franchise that dates back to the 1930s, director Jim Johnston (Jurassic Park III) and star Benicio Del Toro will be howling at the moon in The Wolf Man (April 3). And your kids may be doing some howling of their own, in the days leading up to the release of Hannah Montana: The Movie (April 10). That is, unless Hannah-mania has been totally supplanted by the rise of the Jonas Brothers.
Still, among the returning franchise players, two reign supreme. Branching out from the X-Men, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine gets to go it alone in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (May 1), which should finally resolve all those unanswered questions about how Logan got those super-strong retractable claws embedded in his hands.
Then, a young James Tiberius Kirk and Mr. Spock make their way through Starfleet Academy in Star Trek XI (May 8), a re-imagining (and hoped-for revitalization) of the Trek franchise from action auteur J.J. Abrams.
The year's most eagerly anticipated movie, however, involves the return of a different kind of franchise player. Director James Cameron, 11 years after his last movie, a minor hit called Titanic which earned enough money to pay for a half-dozen Mark Teixeiras, returns to theaters with Avatar (Dec. 18). In the film, a group of human extraterrestrial space pioneers find themselves in pitched battle against their new planet's native population. It reunites Cameron with his Aliens star, Sigourney Weaver. And like so many other of 2009's potential blockbusters, it's being released in 3-D and IMAX formats.
Of course, knowing Cameron as the inveterate tinkerer he is, it will probably feature about a half-dozen new technologies as well - the sort of stuff the new releases of 2010 will find themselves trying to emulate.