The Rise of 3-D Movies?

In Hanover, New Hampshire, less than twenty minutes into ticket sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final installment in the Harry Potter series, all patrons interested in the midnight showing were coughing up the extra $3.50 a head for 3-D tickets. Is this a clear indication that the future of American cinema rests on 3-D technology? No. In fact, this particular incident resulted from a deficit of 2-D tickets. Interestingly, this old-school preference for the traditional flat-screen viewing experience is not limited to small town New England. Early returns indicate 2-D movies like Fast Five, The Hangover Part II, and Bridesmaids lead the summer 2011 box office, with The Hangover outdoing the 3-D fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series as the highest grossing movie of the year. Has 3-D technology truly captivated the American public to the extent that 3-D film earnings can cover the technology’s increased cost to production companies?

Three-dimensional films are not exactly an innovative product of the twenty-first century. In fact, according to Time Magazine, studios released the first 3-D, or stereoscopic films prior to the Great Depression, and the 3-D fad has recurred in waves over the past century. Historically, these stereoscopic pictures topped the box-office; the 1950s “Golden Era” of 3-D brought House of Wax, which banked an estimated $658,000 in theaters, the 1980s’ Parasite horrified viewers into coughing up $7,000,000, and the current, eighth revival of the technology wowed the American public with Avatar, which famously grossed more than $760 million in the United States alone. However, Avatar and other more recent twenty- first century 3-D films differ from their predecessors in that they are filmed in digital 3-D, while previously filmmakers made their films three-dimensional in postproduction by filming each scene simultaneously with two cameras. The film rolls from each camera would be lined up in such a way that viewers donning the traditional cardboard glasses with blue and red lenses would see projected before them a three dimensional image. However, for many viewers, the innovative effects did not outweigh the accompanying headaches and nausea. Today, thanks to RealD’s perfection of digital 3-D, which eliminates the need for color-coded glasses, viewers may enjoy 3-D films with fewer side effects in the greater comfort of plastic glasses resembling those that might be purchased as flair in a fashion accessories store.

3-D technology has added a new layer to the movie-viewing experience that allows viewers to not only see and hear a movie, but also to feel as if they could reach out and touch it. Fascination with this sensory phenomenon helped Avatar to become the highest grossing movie of all time – the movie drew 71% of its profit from 3-D ticket sales, spurring a flurry of 3-D movie production which has increased, and is expected to continue increasing, exponentially from 2009. However, while some personally prefer the traditional two- dimensional manner of viewing a movie, the high price of a 3-D ticket dissuades others. For example, at the LA AMC Century City 15, the cost of a 3-D film to a family of four is $64, as opposed to $48 to see a regular 2- D movie. Companies involved in the production of 3-D films feel the reverberations of these high prices: In the first two weeks of June 2011 after Kung Fu Panda 2 made only 45% of its $60.9 million opening and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earned only 46% of its $90.2 million opening in 3-D tickets, RealD shares dropped 26%. Meanwhile, in response to Kung Fu Panda’s disappointing 3-D revenue, DreamWorks shares dropped 16%. Stock analyst Richard Greenfield explains the trend: “I think people are tired of showing up and having to wear glasses — at high prices — every single week . . . [The prices] are insulting to the customer.” Beyond industry giants, producers feel the sting when revenue from 3-D tickets is proportionally low in that 3-D technology adds up to 30% to the budget for a live-action film and 20% for an animated film, while movie theaters are adversely affected in that they devoted copious funds to converting from analog film reels to digital data feeds to support the 3-D trend.

So why are esteemed directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson joining the 3-D forces to contribute to the 116 3-D movies hitting theaters from 2011 to 2013? In Jackson’s own words, “I believe that almost any movie benefits from 3-D. As a filmmaker, I want you to suspend disbelief and get lost in the film – participate in the film rather than just observe it. On that level, 3- D can only help.” Additionally, where 3-D technology may fail to garner U.S. audiences, it captivates foreign viewers. Notably, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides experienced the largest foreign debut ever, with 66% of its earnings hailing from 3-D ticket sales. Even Kung Fu Panda 2 fared well abroad, where hunger for 3-D films granted Panda the largest non-Chinese opening in China’s
entertainment history. Considering foreign sales, on average, account for two thirds of the global box office, production companies weigh the foreign response highly in their decision to continue producing 3-D films.

While the current lull in popularity of 3-D movies with the American public may prove to be a temporary glitch, others are convinced it is a long-term, downward slope. 3-D historian Daniel Symmes concludes, “3-D has always been the circus coming to town. Does the circus stay around? No. If it does, attendance drops off, the novelty is gone, and the circus goes away.” Whether 3-D films are, as Symmes suggests, a temporary fad which comes and goes or here to stay, perhaps we should prepare for the next sensory trend to hit theaters: 4-D scented films.