It used to be associated with sub-standard movies and throwaway plastic glasses. But after years of dismissing 3D as a fad, Hollywood studios are betting that films shot and projected in the format will boost takings at the box office.

The number of US cinemas capable of showing films in 3D has trebled in three years to more than 700 and is expected to rise to 3,000 by 2009 – about 10 per cent of all US screens.

The 3D cinema experience still requires glasses although they resemble trendy sunglasses rather than the cardboard glasses used in the 1960s. New, lightweight digital camera technology has also sparked an increase in the number of films being shot and produced in 3D.

James Cameron, who directed Titanic and Terminator 2, has started shooting Avatar, a science fiction epic, in a 3D format for release in 2009. DreamWorks Animation, the company behind the Shrek franchise, said last week it would produce all its films in “stereoscopic” 3D technology, also starting in 2009.

A 3D version of Meet the Robinsons, the latest Walt Disney animated movie, opens in the US this week while Walden Media, the company behind the recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is working on a 3D retelling of Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

“In the past, 3D was a gimmick used to enhance films that had run their course,” says Jim Gianopulos, chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the News Corporation-owned studio making Avatar. “3D today is the exact opposite. The image is completely immersive and the audience experiences a truly lifelike environment.”

Hollywood has woken up to the benefits of 3D because audiences are prepared to pay more to watch 3D films. “The per-screen average take is three times that of a regular movie,” says Cary Granat, chief executive of Walden Media.

The growth of 3D has also attracted new investors. Shamrock, the investment vehicle of Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, and Stanley Gold, the former Disney board director, last week invested $50m (€37.6m) in Real D, the company that provides 3D projection systems to cinema chains.

“The entire industry is seeing the advantage of going 3D,” says Michael Lewis, chairman and chief executive of Real D.

“We have to differentiate cinema from home entertainment and we have to bring the magic back. If this industry doesn't step up and provide its audience with a premier experience, then it’s going to have a problem.”

The number of directors working in the format is also increasing. Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and George Lucas, the creative force behind Star Wars, are both committed to working in 3D.

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