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Another dimension

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By Brian Funk, Editor

In December, the film “Avatar” swept audiences away to another planet and another dimension, becoming the most successful — both critically and financially — 3D movie of all time.

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The multi-billion-dollar success of “Avatar” has ushered in a new wave of 3D movies this year, starting today, Friday, with Disney's “Alice In Wonderland.”

And, just in time, Galax's movie theater has upgraded with new technology to take moviegoers into director Tim Burton's psychedelic Wonderland.

Twin County Cinema III manager Mike Steinsberger said a new RealD 3D projector was installed this week, bringing the newest innovation in movies to Galax. One of the cinema's three theaters, which seats 252 people, received the upgrade.

Even for movies that aren't filmed in 3D, Steinsberger said the theater can show digital versions that are sharper and more visually striking than their 35mm counterparts. “Eventually, our other houses [theaters] will go digital, as well.”

Galax is the latest theater owned by Southeast Cinemas to receive the upgrade, and Steinsberger said it came just as audiences were demanding 3D.

“When we were showing 'Avatar,' a lot of people were asking for it. We had great sales for 'Avatar' in 2D — imagine how much bigger an audience we'd have had with 3D. Our home office has been tracking the figures with ticket sales [to 3D films] and it's extraordinary.”

Film industry analysts estimate that 15 to 20 percent of “Avatar's” $707 billion U.S. box office revenue came from 3D viewings.

Local moviegoers were having to leave town to see 3D movies — or even their 2D digital versions — so Steinsberger is happy that he'll now be able to keep that business in town. “People in Galax deserve to have this available.”

Keeping people in Galax to watch movies is good for the economy — it's more likely they'll dine locally, and it's cheaper than leaving town, so they can go to the movies more often.

Steinsberger plans to keep costs down, only charging $2 extra for 3D movies — less than bigger chain theaters charge. That cost covers the glasses viewers must wear.

Glasses are turned in at the end of the movie and sent back to the company, which sanitizes and repackages them.

The 3D upgrade came at a perfect time, as 2010 looks to be a big year for the new technology. After “Alice In Wonderland” comes the animated flick “How To Train Your Dragon” on March 26. Later in the year, audiences will be treated to “Clash of the Titans,” “Toy Story 3” and the next “Shrek” movie.

Up in the projection room, Steinsberger shows the differences between the new and old processes.

On a huge reel, hundreds of feet of 35mm film for "The Wolfman" are spooled horizontally. He takes the end, runs it through a guide and into the projector. The pieces of film are stuck together with tape, a time-consuming process.

Downloading the digital film into the new projector takes 20 minutes.

In the floor sit two big, heavy metal boxes holding a print of the film "Dear John." Next to them is what looks like a bright orange lunchbox. Inside is the hard drive containing a movie, which just plugs into the projector.

3D has gone from a gimmick that involved cheesy paper glasses to being just another tool filmmakers can use to pull an audience into a story.

And still, story is key.

Not all movies need to be in 3D, Steinsberger says.

"Why waste it on something like 'Hot Tub Time Machine?'" he says of the upcoming comedy.

"It should be used on movies that are epic, or take you out of this world."