Michael V. Lewis and Joshua Greer feel no special nostalgia for The Creature From the Black Lagoon and headache-inducing cardboard glasses. They're not trying to re-create 3-D's brief spin on the pop-culture landscape in the 1950s.
Rather, Lewis and Greer, cofounders of Real D, want to make a new sort of digital 3-D projection a fixture at the local multiplex. This month, their Beverly Hills, California, startup is supporting the 3-D release of the animated adventure Monster House in more than 200 theaters. Later this year, they expect to project concerts in 3-D, with live sporting events and possibly even preshow advertisements to follow.
"The biggest challenge for us from the get-go was getting past the idea most people have about 3-D, which is a bad experience and a bad movie," says Lewis, the company's chairman. "Unfortunately, people have to see it to understand how it's better."
Real D relies on a high-resolution digital projector souped up to show images much faster than a typical movie—144 images per second, half of them intended for the left eye, half for the right. Hanging in front of the projector lens is a liquid-crystal screen that polarizes the pictures, so the audience, wearing plastic glasses with polarized lenses, sees different images in its left and right eyes, creating the illusion of depth.
The result is a crisp 3-D picture that seems to extend behind and in front of the movie screen itself. Theaters pay at least $50,000 to upgrade an auditorium with the Real D equipment and a new, more-reflective silver screen; that's followed by a $25,000-per-year licensing fee. The steep investment is one reason just 84 screens nationwide were 3-D–ready last year. Real D has to convince theater owners that their investment will pay off and ensure that studios churn out a continuous stream of releases in 3-D, which adds up to $10 million to a film's cost.
The upside: Lewis says theaters that rented Real D's first 3-D release, last year's Chicken Little, averaged three times the box office of the 2-D version, charging a premium of up to $4 per ticket. "This is one of the few things I've ever seen that changed the moviegoing experience for people," says Tom Stephenson, chief executive of Dallas-based Rave Motion Picture Theaters, which will have 29 screens ready for Monster House. "And you can't duplicate it at home."
That's the real promise for Real D. Lewis and Greer hope their technology helps cinemas combat a host of emerging media—just as the first 3-D boom, which lasted only three years, was part of Hollywood's response to television. "The big issue for cinemas now is how they compete against all these other things pulling on their audience, from DVDs to the Internet to iPods," Lewis says. "How do you get the magic back?"
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.