To many observers, the current 3-D craze began with the release of James Cameron’s “Avatar” this past December. The sci-fi epic grossed more than $2.7 billion worldwide, more than 70 percent of that take from its 3-D showings.
A new, “special” version of the film was released on Aug. 27, to many of the same 3-D houses that showed the original, as well as many more that were updated with 3-D capabilities in the interim. But as theaters embrace the world of Pandora once more, the long-term success of 3-D cinema remains unclear.
The year has seen an explosion in the number of films that feature the highly touted (and higher priced) process. More than 20 movies have been or will be released in 3-D in 2010, almost double the number available in 2009. The last few months of the year will see an average of three movies in 3-D each month, an unheard of number. More than 30 new 3-D films will be released in 2011.
On the surface, box office numbers seem to support the craze. The highest-grossing movie of the year, “Toy Story 3,” was widely available in 3-D. Six of the top 10 movies of the year were shown in the format. Clearly, the audience is crazy for 3-D, so the more movies shown with the process, the more money there is to be made, right? Not exactly. In fact, several rather telling statistics have come out in the past few weeks, which can lead one to the conclusion that the 3-D craze is already dying — or maybe it was finished before we even knew it had begun.
First, there’s the matter of percentages. Many websites have reported on a decline in how much of each film’s gross is from 3-D houses, as opposed to standard 2-D showings. As noted, “Avatar” made more than 70 percent of its box office take from 3-D theaters, whereas the last major 3-D hit, “Despicable Me,” has made only about 45 percent of its money from 3-D houses. A steady decline between the two points is easily seen on a widely distributed graph.
Defenders of the format point out that films like “Despicable” came out in a much more crowded marketplace than “Avatar” did — many other 3-D films competed for box office space, so there were actually fewer 3-D theaters showing each movie. As more theaters convert to the process, these issues will evaporate, they say.
Recently, however, a fascinating article on Slate.com, “Is 3-D Dead in the Water?” by Daniel Engber, was published. In it, Engber argues that a much more telling statistic comes from how much 3-D films are making on a per-screen basis, compared to 2-D films, leading him to the surprising conclusion that the format’s glory days have already long passed.
Engber points out that back in 2004, when “The Polar Express” was released, a mere 59 houses showed the film in 3-D in the whole country. But those houses could expect much more business than average — per screen, the 3-D shows made nearly six times what the 2-D shows did, an increase of 575 percent.
Five years later, when “Avatar” was released, there were far more theaters prepared for 3-D — nearly 2,000 of the 3,400 were showing the film in the format. And yet, the 3-D houses were only making 70 percent more than the traditional 2-D ones. “Toy Story 3” came out in June, and this time the numbers showed that the 2-D houses actually made more per screen than the 3-D ones — a net loss of 5 percent for the premium showings.
So what does it mean? I think that as time passes, moviegoers are growing wise. Hollywood, in a desperate attempt to draw back viewers, saw something that was a success and jumped on it with both feet. They made hasty conversions of 2-D films in an effort to squeeze more money out of consumers. They assumed the cash would just come rolling in on anything they shipped out with “in 3-D” attached to it.
But the public is growing weary of shelling out an extra four dollars every few weeks, especially when so many of the last-second conversions turn out bad-looking effects, and even the best ones result in a much darker picture. The question from movie customers used to be, “This is in 3-D, right?” Now it’s, “that’s not in 3-D, is it?”
Everyone in Tinseltown crowded onto a life raft that wasn’t ready for so many passengers, and now it’s quickly taking on water. If they hadn’t been so greedy, and used it sparingly — say once a year or so — the process might have boosted profits on big-name pictures for a long time to come. But right now, the future of 3-D looks exceedingly dim.
The original Slate article is available at www.slate.com/id/2264927/.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.