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Transformers Movie Campaigns for Big 3-D Numbers

Paramount is wasting no time driving moviegoers to 3-D screenings of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

3D audience
AP
3D audience

The film officially opens nationwide today (Wednesday), but it already grossed $13.5 million at 3-D screenings last night. In addition to midnight shows that grossed $8 million, the studio hosted sneak peaks in 3-D earlier in the evening that earned $5.5 million.

This puts the third installment in the Transformers franchise ahead of the first film, which grossed $8.8 million from the same sneak previews and midnight showings the day before the movie opened in 2007.

and director Michael Bay are hoping that the fanboys who turned out last night will spread the word that it's worth paying a premium to see the film in 3-D.

Bay has been personally campaigning to draw moviegoers to the new format by communicating directly with fans and campaigning with theater chains Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark Holdings and Carmike Cinemas to project the film with more light, even though that will burn out theaters' projector bulbs more quickly.

Moviegoers often complain that 3-D films are too dark—if the film really pops, Bay figures, fans will tell their friends that 3-D is a must-see. Shooting the film in 3-D added about $30 million to production costs, bringing the film's budget to nearly $200 million. Bay is determined to make that investment pay off and to prove that the 3-D medium has legs.

Hollywood will carefully watch this weekend's box office numbers—it's no longer a question of how big the box office is, the question is, how much of the box office comes from 3-D screenings. The performance of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," will be seen as a referendum of sorts on 3-D.

Disney's"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Cars 2" drew a dismal percentage of U.S. audiences to pricier 3-D screenings. Just 37 percent—an all-time low—of Cars 2's domestic gross came from 3-D screens.

Last year and even earlier this year, studios expected 60 percent or more of their total U.S. gross to come from 3-D. Now the industry is wondering whether consumers are really ready to pay the $3 to $5 premium for 3-D tickets and whether the investment in costly projectors will pay off.

If "Transformers 3" can sell a high percentage of its tickets in 3-D, the global box office for the film could top $1 billion, putting it well into the top-10-grossing movies of all time.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.