Avatar," the most high-profile, fiercely debated and expensive 3-D film in history, is poised to become something more than a conversation piece or a mega-blockbuster.
If its writer-director, James Cameron, manages to flood the pop-cultural mainstream as he did with his last film, "Titanic," it could transform the way people view entertainment not just on movie screens but on TVs and personal computers.
David Modell, former president and CEO of the Baltimore Ravens and now chairman of the board of the technology company 3ality Digital, thinks the game has already changed.
"It's not as if 'Avatar' is jumping out of the blocks from a dead start for a hundred-yard dash," says Modell. "It's part of the marathon for change that will allow people to see 3-D in movies and throughout the entertainment world the way they do everything else in our lives."
Audiences are now experiencing state-of-the-art 3-D as part of Oscar-caliber films, not just stunt-ridden action or horror movies. Proponents of the format are developing plans to deliver that extra-dimensional experience for sports and music broadcasts and even sitcoms.
Every movie fan can see that the number of 3-D releases has been increasing, and hits such as "Up," "G Force" and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" have proved 3-D's capacity to increase a film's take at the box office.
But beneath the mass-media radar, 3ality Digital and other companies have been trailblazing technologies that will bring 3-D sportscasts into some living rooms as early as mid-2010.
Best known for the film "U2 3D," the Los Angeles-based company also mounted the first live theatrical 3-D broadcast of an NFL "Thursday Night Football" game, between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 4, 2008, and the first 3-D football broadcast open to the public, the BCS championship game between the Florida Gators and the Oklahoma Sooners on Jan. 8.
The Los Angeles Times' Diane Pucin thought watching the NFL game in 3-D at a theater "seemed better" than being in a stadium: "You felt as if you were sitting in the stands, only with the ability to see the field as if it were in high-definition TV."
3eality has also pulled off a live 3-D sneak peek at a Howie Mandel game show for the National Association of Broadcasters, a 3-D SoBe drink commercial ("Lizard Lake") and a 3-D episode of "Chuck." The DVD box of the second season of "Chuck," out Jan. 5, contains a pair of 3-D glasses.
More than 50 years ago, 20th Century Fox released the first CinemaScope movie, "The Robe," and ushered in a wide-screen era that definitively altered moviegoers' visual expectations. It helped eliminate the demand for 3-D in the 1950s, which was bedeviled by improper projection that left audiences with headaches.
Almost every film in the post-CinemaScope era provided viewers with images wider than conventional televisions. With "Avatar," Fox could change the presentation of TV shows as well as movies. That's the hope of companies such as 3ality Digital.
No matter how well "Avatar" does and how swiftly the industry responds, the immediate prospects for theatrical 3-D are still limited. The Hollywood Reporter estimated the number of 3-D screens at roughly 1,700 in September; perhaps 2,000 will be up and running for "Avatar." And the big American studios and producers, those most likely to use the process, are making fewer movies of any kind each year.
3ality Digital CEO Sandy Climan says, "3-D needs to be part of the entertainment ecosphere on a recurring basis. It has to come through your TV or computer screen."
That development is on the horizon. Major consumer-electronics manufacturers plan to introduce 3-D-enabled televisions in 2010. Just yesterday, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced that the first Blu-Ray machines equipped for 3-D will be available later in the year, in time for the 3-D Blu-Ray release of "Avatar." British Sky Broadcasting has been setting up a 3-D channel that plans to be in operation next year.
Whether 3-D domination arrives first on big screens or on small, "Avatar" producer Jon Landau says that further 3-D evolution will ultimately come "with better 3-D glasses, then with no glasses."
"Look, I tell people, you go to the beach, you wear sunglasses; they just happen to be comfortable ones that don't destroy your vision. ... The new 3-D glasses are like sunglasses. The interesting thing is, I think you will see 'no glasses' [3-D] first on computers, second on television, third in the theaters.
"The tricky thing about no glasses is creating what we call 'sweet spots,' Landau says. "It's easy to say: Sit in front of a monitor and have a great 3-D image with no glasses. [But] move a little bit to the left or right, and the quality goes away."
Modell says that even with glasses, 3-D television offers a eureka experience.
"It's like a hole opens up in your wall," he says. "Every time I see it, I still can't believe it."
Not all 3-D experts believe "Avatar" is the harbinger of a 3-D golden age. Daniel L. Symmes, co-author of "Amazing 3-D" and president and CEO of Dimension 3, which provides stereoscopic film, TV and print technologies, says "Avatar" will "not change anything, except push us more in the direction of cartoons."
He believes that TV manufacturers preparing for 3-D are simply hoping to compensate for the disappointing early years of Blu-Ray. He considers latter-day 3-D to be the equivalent of the circus. "It's wonderful if it comes to your town once a year," he says. "The next year you go again. But if it stays in town, the box office drops. Why? Because you've seen it."
But 3ality and Landau are hoping that their 3-D work will have the same transformative effect as another 20th Century Fox release, a classic sleeper from 1975. Climan recalls that when he went to Hollywood looking for a job, Dick Berger, an executive vice president at Fox, told him the story of a potentially spectacular but untested project by a young director who had never executed a movie on an epic scale. Fox was still a movie studio, not part of a global media company, and its fortunes were riding on this one production.
When the executives walked into the first screening without knowing what to expect, they saw a large spaceship cross the screen, and they breathed a mass sigh of relief - interrupted by a theater-quaking rumble. At the top of the screen came another spaceship that dwarfed the one they had just seen. Their mouths were agape. They had never seen anything like it. The movie, of course, was "Star Wars."
Cameron, then a youthful fan, is still enraged that "Annie Hall" beat "Star Wars" for the best-picture Oscar. "Avatar" might not win that Oscar either, but when it comes to the future of the movies, the Force may be with him.