SES 2011: What Entertainment Can Learn From 3D Sports Production

Sports content has been firmly entrenched in the driver’s seat throughout these early days of live 3DTV production. However, while dozens of live sports events have been produced in 3D over the past two years, hardly any live entertainment programming has been produced in 3D for television.

At Sports Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles on Tuesday, SVG brought together experts from nearly every step of the 3D production chain to highlight all that the entertainment side can glean from the first years of 3D sports production.

“3D sports is demonstrating that the bridge into episodic- or sitcom-based 3D production is possible,” said PACE CEO Vince Pace. “Sports has shown that [3D] can be repetitive and be done somewhat cost-effectively. [Sports] has shown that you don’t need an Avatar to sell 3D.”

What Content Works Well in 3D? All of It
Although American audiences seem to have warmed up to 3D action films and, to a lesser extent, 3D sports and concerts, there has been a significant pushback in terms of scripted 3D dramas and television. Many believe that 3D should be reserved for tent-pole events and films and has no place in dramas or sitcoms.

“There’s always this debate about what makes a good 3D content, but I think that’s bull,” Pace told the gathering. “Simply put, 3D has the ability to enhance your viewing experience. When you look at it in that context, what show wouldn’t you want to feel more laughter or emotion for? That’s what 3D does. It enhances that connection to the subject matter.”

In addition, the controlled studio setting of TV dramas and sitcoms lends itself to 3D production. Unlike a live sports event, where the unexpected can often throw a wrench into the plans of 3D crews, scripted shows can control the production environment while shooting 2D and 3D simultaneously.

“3D is actually more adaptable to sitcoms and dramas,” said Ted Kenney, director of production, 3ality Digital. “Sports can be a handful, but, when you’re on a set shooting a drama, you have the freedom and flexibility. We all know sports is pushing 3D, but the next step is for TV programs to go into 3D so that the audience will grow.”

Filling Schedules While Cutting Costs
The proliferation of 3D channels has created a gaping need for long-form 3D content. Such 24-hour 3D networks as DirecTV’s n3D, ESPN 3D, and 3net (the Sony-Discovery Communications-IMAX joint venture set to launch early this year) are in a constant search for 3D content to fill their programming slate, while also looking to trim the costs associated with producing this content.

“We need events where we can actually create longer forms of content over many hours without a huge investment,” said DirecTV VP of Production John Ward. “We’ve gotten more content as time goes on, but, in the beginning, we had a lot of shows on heavy repeat. So we have a need to find economies of scale and find content that we can put on-air right now.”

In many ways, 3D entertainment shows fit into this cost-effective model better than 3D sports, which require two independent production crews. Kenney pointed out that dramas and comedies can “shoot for both 2D and 3D without much added cost. You can just use 3D cameras and take [the left-eye feed] for 2D. But, right now with sports, you’re looking at two side-by-side productions.”

3D Viewership on the Rise
Although 2010 sales of 3DTV sets fell below many analysts’ projections, the format continues to gain traction with U.S. viewers. Since launching its trio of 3D channels in July, DirecTV has reported a 60% month-over-month increase in 3D viewership, according to Bob Gabrielli, SVP of programming operations and distribution.

“We know it started small, but that’s still a pretty tremendous growth,” he said. “I will be curious to see what kind of uptick we get [in viewership] this month and next month following the [holiday shopping season]. That will be a good indication of whether this thing is really taking off or if it’s still creeping along.”

3D on the Big Screen: Live Sports Making Headway
The growing popularity of 3D has caused U.S. theaters to pick up the pace in their transition from 35mm film projectors to digital projectors. According to Cinedigm Entertainment Group COO Michele Martell, about 15,000 of the 39,000 theaters in the country have converted to digital. Cinedigm expects 25% of theaters to be 3D-capable by the end of 2011 and 55% by the end of 2015.

“Once you convert to digital, adding that 3D layer becomes very easy,” Martell pointed out. “Right now, there is a lot of competition for 3D screens in booking, but, as more theaters move towards digital and more 3D content enters theaters, we’re going to see a major increase in the level of 3D content going to television.”

A handful of major sports events have been distributed to U.S. theaters live in 3D over the past two years, including the BCS National Championship Game, the NBA All-Star Game, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four and Championship games, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup final.

Although many of these events generated promising ticket sales, they also found that 3D screens were often hard to come by. This occurred most significantly in April during the Final Four. Cinedigm and LG, the event’s sponsor, originally intended to distribute the game live to 80-100 theaters. However, that number was cut to 30 thanks to a glut of 3D releases — including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and Avatar — that tied up the bulk of 3D screens.

“That was the perfect storm,” said Martell. “We were taking away six hours on a Saturday from theaters, and there was a ton of 3D stuff playing at that time. So we wound up with fewer screens. But most of the screens that did show it sold out. If theater [owners] see people showing up and paying for something they can see on television because of the live 3D factor, they will open up more screens.”