Here’s the simplest way to interpret this graph: 3-D has been getting less and less profitable, relative to 2-D, over the past five years. It’s an ominous, downward trend that started long before Avatar and Alice in Wonderland and continued after.
In fact, the few movies that still make a significant bonus profit from 3-D screenings are those that have “3-D” in the titles. There have been only three of these in my sample—My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Step Up 3-D, and Piranha 3-D—and their 3-D theaters have benefited from markups of 481 percent, 42 percent, and 131 percent, respectively.
Let’s guess which part of his argument studio executives will choose to focus on in the coming year!
I feel bad for the theatres that have had to invest in the 3D projection technology. Near me, at least, a lot of these theatres are independently owned and struggling already. Hopefully the at least recoup their investment before the trend dies a (for me at least) welcome death.
The comparison to colourization of film is crazy. 3D has been here for years and hasn’t caught on beyond anything more than a novelty. It’s tough now to think of a film or genre I wouldn’t rather see in colour than black and white, but I can’t imagine seeing a drama in 3D - 21 Grams in 3D? That’d be ridiculous. Although, fine, maybe for a technology and style to work it doesn’t have to apply to all genres equally. However, even while watching Avatar I’d “forget” I was seeing it in 3D, and then when I’d suddenly realize it, I’d remember, oh right, I’m sitting in a theatre watching a movie. It didn’t add anything to the movie itself, and actually detracted from my experience.
Even if there was some swelling of support from the majority of views, the way the theatres and studios have handled 3D is going to kill it.
The trend begins at what I take to be the start of the revival—the November 2004 release of The Polar Express, the first-ever IMAX 3-D feature. That film opened in 3,650 theaters around the country, of which just 59 were equipped to show in 3-D. But the revenue from each of those premium screens was almost $40,000, compared with $6,000 for flat-showings. At the beginning, the 3-D bonus was an incredible 575 percent.
This ignores the fact that IMAX 3D always had the markup, which combined with the limited amount of IMAX theaters, accounts for the huge bonus/average. The averages taper off when they expand widely: compare per-screen averages in a Fox Searchlight film on four screens versus the same film in wide release on 2000+ screens.
Despite the studios’ wild fantasies, just adding 3D to something doesn’t mean it is instantaneously an event picture–Step Upand Piranha were inherently niche pictures, and the latter even had an R rating. Niche pictures, no matter how they are presented, are not going to outgross the other megastar-filled options (Expendables, Eat Pray Love). The added expense isn’t going to be justified for audiences unless it is a truly distinct picture; Avatar 2 in 3D will have a nine-figure opening weekend and a ten-figure box office run undoubtedly.
I hope 3D doesn’t go away, but I wouldn’t mind it being used more sparingly and artfully. 3D only really works with animation where there is a established lack of verisimilitude and thus there’s no facade that this is reality; in that context, the format can be spectacular. I have no doubts that the excellent use of 3D added to the experience of How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
The paradox is that your brain basically does that anyway if you’re watching a good or engaging movie. What is generally considered “good 3D” (Avatar, Pixar films, Dreamworks CG films) is often good because it’s unobtrusive and sort of helps your brain get lost in the frame rather than bouncing crap off your head repeatedly.
I had a reminder of this phenomenon when I saw Inception and there was an object caught in the projection gate, creating a large black spot on the screen just right of center. It would disappear long enough for me to forget about it and get absorbed in the film, and then it would reappear, but my mental reaction was often as though the spot was right in my face rather than 40 yards away on a screen. Your brain pulls you into the frame, and any reminder of the projection/presentation process, be it a black spot or a 3D effect, can ruin that illusion.
3D has generally added significantly to my viewing experience, at least in animated films. Up? Avatar? Coraline? How to Train Your Dragon? Despicable Me? Toy Story 3? All great in 3D, and definitely an improvement on the 2D version in the case of Up (I’ve not seen the others multiple times) although it’s obviously still a phenomenal film.
The only place where 3D hasn’t worked for me was Clash of the Titans, where I believe 3D was a sloppy after-the-fact addon rather than an integral element of how the film was made. Also it was a bad movie.
That said, I find the ticket premium wholly unjustified. As Ebert pointed out in an Answer Man column, the initial cost of the 3D equipment is surely paid off by now and there’s no extra cost to the theaters beyond that. Why can’t they simply be satisfied with 3D offering a reason to see the film in theaters rather than on my resolutely 2D home television? (Yes, I know they’re making 3D televisions, but they’re not priced within the price range of us mere mortals yet, I just went HDTV a couple years ago and don’t want to upgrade again soon, and the investment isn’t likely to be worthwhile for most potential moviegoers anytime soon.)
What makes 3D different now is the advent of new technology. For the last couple years theaters have widely adopted the use of 3D via circularly polarized lenses. This is far less obtrusive, far more functional, and has a greatly reduced rate of headaches/eye strain than previously used anaglyph and shutter lens technologies.
I really do not understand the hate that 3D is getting. There is a significant investment that theaters have made to install the screens and projectors for doing 3D film. At some point either the 3D prices will come down a bit or (more likely) the other ticket prices will increase to reduce the gap. Why is it a bad thing in any way that this technology exists and that it actually works quite well?