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Will 'Chicken Little' be the ticket to cure the movie industry's woes?

Big things are expected from ''Chicken Little."

The Walt Disney Co. animated movie, which opens nationwide this Friday, will play on standard 35-millimeter film at most megaplexes. But on 84 screens, including three here in the Boston area, audiences will don special glasses and watch the movie in digital 3-D.

It's the first test of whether the on-screen three-dimensional realism made possible by digital projection can bring consumers out to the megaplex in large enough numbers to keep the sky from falling on the movie theater business. Attendance through Oct. 23 this year was down 8.1 percent from a year ago, according to Exhibitor Relations Co.

Movie industry veterans, including big-name directors like George Lucas and James Cameron, say digital 3-D is a technological breakthrough in film realism, likely to become as standard as sound, action, and color.

''I envision a day when we release a picture just in 3-D," said Charles Viane, president of distribution for Disney. ''We're finally bringing to the theater a presentation that the consumer cannot get from a home theater."

But the digital 3-D experience won't come cheap. 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.

Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. is planning to boost its 3-D prices a similar amount at its Boston Common theater, but a final price was not set late last week.

''The consumer will walk out of the movie and definitely feel they've had a unique experience worth the extra money," said John McCauley, senior vice president for marketing at Loews.

Consumers have eagerly paid similar prices for 3-D screenings of Imax films. ''Polar Express" last Christmas made 30 percent of its revenue on 3-D showings at Imax theaters even though those screens represented only 2 percent of the movie's screen total. It was so successful that Imax is bringing the 3-D movie back for the holidays this year.

Partly because of the strong Imax numbers, Disney decided in March to try a digital 3-D version of ''Chicken Little." It was an ambitious project. The movie had already been shot in 2-D, so a second ''right-eye" version had to be created, digital projectors costing more than $100,000 each were installed in theaters showing the film, and new silver oxide screens and other hardware also had to be added.

Viane says ''Chicken Little" will have some standard 3-D effects, where action seems to explode out of the screen into the viewer's lap. But mostly the 3-D is there to add depth to the on-screen action.

''If you want to get more people going to movies, you have to make it more interesting," said Colum Slevin, senior director of computer graphics at Lucasfilm Ltd.'s Industrial Light & Magic, which adapted the film for 3-D. ''This makes it feel like you can reach out and touch the image."

It's a pitch moviegoers have heard before. In the early 1950s, studios, alarmed at the loss of viewers to television, pumped out 3-D movies at a rapid clip to bring consumers back. It worked spectacularly for awhile, with films like ''House of Wax," but the crude technology eventually turned moviegoers off.

The goal of 3-D cinema is to trick the brain into seeing depth where it doesn't really exist. Film makers do that by creating left and right eye images of a scene and then delivering those images in synch to the viewer's eyes.

It's a tricky process, and one that has been plagued by the imprecision of film, which tends to jiggle slightly as it goes through a projector and degrade over time. With ''Chicken Little," the film is eliminated, replaced by digital projectors delivering alternating left and right images in rapid-fire fashion.

Viewers still need 3-D glasses, but the company that designed them says moviegoers for the first time will be able to tilt their heads and not lose the 3-D image.

''It's about as close to being there as being there," said Michael V. Lewis, chairman of Real D, the Beverly Hills, Calif., company outfitting theaters for ''Chicken Little" in 3-D. Lewis says it won't be long before theaters start carrying live concerts and sports events in 3-D.

Charles S. Swartz, executive director and chief executive of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, predicts many movie studios will reissue their classics in 3-D using technology from In-Three Inc. of Agoura Hills, Calif.

Swartz saw a 3-D clip from the original ''Star Wars" movie at a recent trade show and was impressed. ''It was very convincing," he said.

The financing of the ''Chicken Little" 3-D experiment is almost as groundbreaking as the technology itself. The stumbling block for digital projection has always been the question of who will pay for it. With ''Chicken Little," Dolby Laboratories is picking up the $105,000 cost of each digital projector and server, and theater chains are footing the roughly $25,000 bill for Real D modifications to an auditorium.

Dolby expects to recover its costs over 10 years by charging studios for delivering digital movies to theaters. Disney and other studios have agreed to pay the fees, which are roughly what they would pay to distribute a film print. By going digital, studios could eventually save an estimated $1 billion a year in film delivery costs.

Perry Lowe, a marketing professor at Bentley College in Waltham and a former movie theater operator, said digital 3-D gives movie theaters something home theaters don't have, but he doesn't think the advantage will last long.

He says 3-D at home is coming and predicts movie studios eventually will try to deliver their products directly to consumers rather than going through middlemen at theaters.

Richard L. Gelfond, co-chief executive officer of Imax Corp., said the new digital projectors don't emit enough light to play a 3-D movie on screens wider than 40 feet, which means 3-D movies for now can't play in larger auditoriums.

''It's not a bad small-screen experience," he said, ''but it's not Imax, and it never will be."

Bill Towey, senior vice president at National Amusements in Dedham, says 3-D has great potential, but he doesn't see it as a lifesaver for theaters. He said most megaplexes will outfit only one or two theaters for 3-D.

''We can't put out a bad film and expect people to come to it just because it's 3-D," he said.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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