How The Movie Industry Blew it With 3D

3D was supposed to be the next big thing for cinema. It accounts for just 20% of ticket sales. What went wrong?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

In early 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar became the USA’s 24th most successful cinema release of all time, and it still holds that position today.

I’m measuring that success by the actual number of tickets sold, but perhaps you prefer the way the Hollywood hype machine processes these things. Their version of how this works, in which records can be broken over and over again for a continual stream of back-slaps and headlines, makes Avatar into The Biggest Film of All Time. Don’t adjust for inflation but just sum up the numbers on the tickets, and it’s true, Avatar is certainly the highest grossing film to ever see the inside of a cinema.

Either way, whether it’s top of the pops or holding on strong at number 24, Cameron’s film was a huge hit, and I think it’s no controversy to say that being produced and released in 3D played a significant part in this success. Obviously, the 3D surcharge – linked arm-in-arm with a parallel IMAX surcharge for the film’s large-format screenings – helped Avatar sell a lot of especially expensive tickets, but it’s also true that audiences were made curious by the promise of cutting-edge 3D, and everything they were told it would bring to the experience.

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Over half a decade later and, if you’ll pardon the expression, 3D is looking a lot more flat. These days, you’ll find it that bit harder to track down somebody excited, or even just optimistic, about the potential of the format. One easy way to get a clear view on this change in sentiment is to compare ticket sales between 2D and 3D versions of the same film (accomodating, of course, for different availability of these options), using data from 2010 as well as today’s marketplace.

It looks like a genuine minority will either make the effort or spend the extra to see a film in 3D these days. Stereo pictures are still being made and still being released, which all but proves that the studios think there’s meaningful money to be mined from the format, but its clear that there’s much less commercial benefit to releasing a film in 3D today, as compared to the height of the hype, back in 2010.

According to IHS Technology, cited by Variety, worldwide box-office from 3D films is 20% of the global total. I had intuited it would be much less, if I’m being honest – I’ve spent enough hours being the only one in a 3D screening to think there had been a total crash. Nonetheless, the success of Avatar and, so quickly afterwards, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, seemed to be setting us up for a future where 3D became – in blockbuster terms at least – embraced as the norm, taken for granted the way that color and surround sound are already accepted without consideration, let alone challenge.

That never happened, and if it ever does, I don’t think it’s going to be in the next few years.

Jeffrey Katzenberg – outgoing chief of DreamWorks Animation – summed it up very clearly during his CineEurope address this week. “Unfortunately, we blew it on 3D,” he said. “It was a game-changing opportunity for the industry.”

Before the 3D boom that blew up around Avatar, Katzenberg was a passionate advocate for the format. Under his instruction, all of Dreamworks Animations features were officially announced as 3D releases. Katzenberg, it must be said, is a film businessman more than a film artist, and so his concerns should be understood in that context, but he did see 3D as a whole new way, not just a passing new wave.

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And he mentally tied 3D to quality storytelling too. At CineEurope Katzenberg noted that Avatar, Life Of Pi, and Monsters Vs. Aliens were examples of “exceptional films” that “artistically, creatively embraced and celebrated the uniqueness of that experience” and thus “people were happy to pay the premium.”

Monsters Vs. Aliens was one of Katzenberg’s own, being the first film finished and released after his blanket commitment to 3D at Dreamworks Animation. It also happens to be a film with some well-considered, ambitious and intelligent 3D, thanks in no small part to sterescoptic supervisior, Phil McNally.

Broadly speaking, I couldn’t agree with Katzenberg more. The studios did blow it, and 3D should have become more than a novelty or optional add-on. The details, however, I think he has all wrong.

For example, Katzenberg does not question the notion of premium prices for 3D screenings. To his way of thinking, the failure here is in studios not being able to convice audiences to abandon normally priced 2D for more profitable, surcharge-laden 3D. In truth, the real failure of 3D is partly dependent on studios and cinemas not relaxing the premiums on ticket prices. Had 3D films been allowed to generate income by simply attracting more people to more screenings, they may have played a massive part in driving up cinema attendance with vast and lasting effect.

Go back to my earlier comments on Avatar. Obviously, the 3D surcharge – linked arm-in-arm with a parallel IMAX surcharge for the film’s large-format screenings – helped Avatar sell a lot of especially expensive tickets, but it’s also true that audiences were made curious by the promise of cutting-edge 3D, and everything they were told it would bring to the experience.

In the long term, the curiousity went away. 3D remained marginalised by pricing premiums, supposedly well-meaning marketing rhetoric and a general sense of ‘newness,’ even while audiences were being convinced it wasn’t ‘special’ at all.

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Where did the initial interest go, and what caused it to evaporate? Well, as ever, we should acknowledge that novelties do hold some appeal for people, and anything new will soon become old. That alone explains some reduction in the public’s enthusiasm, though I’d find it hard to quantify this natural winnowing other than to say it won’t have been the majority reason.

Then there’s the self-thwarting, short-sighted laziness with which cinemas actually exhibited 3D. Chances are, your local cinemas still show 3D films with an appalling lack of care – I know that mine do, no matter how much I say about it.

As you will most probably have been told, there’s a polarizing lens needed to project 3D images, and this lens will cut down on the quantity of light coming from the projector. As you’re less likely to be told, it’s not at all too difficult to offset this loss of light. Modern projectors are capable of far more illumination than is necessary to counteract loss through a 3D filter, but modern projectionists – if we can even give them that job title in the vast majority of cases – will tend to not take the necessary action.

The 3D format doesn’t inherently result in darker, dimmer, less focused images, but the typical multiplex has a terrible track record in taking the few, neither difficult nor expensive steps to make sure 3D is being presented properly. Sadly, many films are projected pretty badly, 2D or 3D, but the nature of 3D is that the errors – double images when the filter isn’t running at all, for example, or an image so dark that you can’t actually make out details you were supposed to see – are usually more obvious.

While Michael Bay tried to help out, making sure his 3D Transformers films were color-corrected to be brighter than normal, the better to work in cinemas with careless pseudo-projectionists, the majority of producers and distributors of 3D releases seemed to be asleep on the job, letting exhibitors bungle screenings until it was far too late. The damage was done rather quickly, and “3D films are too dark” became a widely held sort-of-half-truism that’s still used liberally to damn the format.

I’m not sure I agree with Katzenberg’s notions of what make a good 3D film either. While Life Of Pi is regularly cited as a high point in 3D filmmaking, I’m personally not convinced. I think it’s more that Life Of Pi carries prestige in both its overall design and, through its marketing, PR, and worship of the auterial canon, its context in modern cinema. Life Of Pi, almost everything but the film itself tells us, is “a cut above.”

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There’s a scene in Life Of Pi where Flying Fish come tearing across the screen. 3D is used to make it seem like they’re zipping along the Z-axis, towards the viewer. There’s even an aspect ratio shift, in which the main image becomes less tall, with black matting at the top and bottom that the flying fish cross into, allegedly better conveying their ‘escape’ from the screen.

It would certainly have worked better if the aspect ratio change wasn’t so obvious, but as it stands, the noticeable shift of frame highlights the filmness of what is being shown, thereby undermining the supposed immersion of the scene.

Then it would be more convincingly “innovative” filmmaking if it wasn’t, in fact an old idea – see G-Force, the CG hamster movie with the voice of Nicolas Cage, for a widely-seen, totally ignored application of the same trick. I’d even argue that, given it went almost totally unnoticed in G-Force, there’s a case that Hoyt Yeatman and team pulled it off better than Ang Lee and his gang; you really aren’t supposed to see the strings that make the puppet dance, after all.

And it would be more persuasive as quality storytelling if the whole point wasn’t just “fish are jumping out of the screen,” which is only as valid here as many other examples of other things jumping out of the screen in other films – i.e. just fine, totally valid, but not somehow exemplary.

There are countless assumptions, myths and misconceptions about 3D filmmaking, but the crux of it is simple: the typical movie viewer knows no more about how 3D works, what a good 3D shot is, and what constitutes good storyelling in 3D than they do about about the storytelling, visual and creative aspects of, say, choosing to shoot a scene with a Cooke SK4 16mm or Canon CN-E18-80mm T4.4.

And neither should they.

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Personally, I love 3D films. There are things that 3D does that are genuinely exciting to me, and there are countless little bits of 3D storytelling that have impressed me hugely. Plenty of them happened under Jeffrey Katzenberg’s watch, and I wonder how much he knew about the 3D artists he was sponsoring, or the imaginative, beautiful, elegant 3D filmmaking they were creating.

A favorite example of mine comes from Dreamworks’ Puss In Boots. There’s a scene where Puss sees and reacts to Kitty Softpaws, struck by her beauty. In a 2D film, there’s a standard bit of language that might have been used here: a slow zoom on Kitty, a simulation of “leaning forward with increased attention.” The basic idea behind that 2D shot isn’t bad (I think a dolly-in would be a better choice than a zoom, but that’s a discussion for another time) but the 3D version in Puss In Boots is better.

What happens in the 3D film is that the whole world comes closer. You, the viewer don’t move, but the stimulus that comes in through your eyes simulates what would happen if you did. It’s a convincing, albeit almost subliminal, approximation of actually leaning forward.

Do you notice this while you’re watching the film? Some people will, but not many, and again, it would be better if nobody did at all. But the effect it has is real. You’ll almost certainly have forgotten it later, but in the moment, the emotional push-and-pull is happening, and Puss In Boots is doing something uniquely 3D-powered to your personal point of view, your emotions, your sympathies and your investment in the story.

I like that example because it’s an improvement on a good-but-flawed 2D idea. It’s just a moment, though, and the films with the best 3D – Coraline, Avatar, Pacific Rim, Oz The Great And Powerful – are packed with moments that convert this kind of care, cinematic skill and storytelling determination into audience reaction, tiny soft-touches of steering that help the ship chart its most effective course. 3D really is just like every other part of the filmmaker’s toolkit, and it honestly can be used with the same powerful effect.

I’m sure that Avatar 2 will draw people back to 3D screenings in very big numbers again, and that Ang Lee’s film of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will generate a lot of positive critical commentary, but I almost wish that neither of these things were true. There’s a side effect of just a few 3D films being made exceptional in this way – especially when their actual qualities are not really so rare – and this is the continued marginalisation of the format.

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After the third Hobbit film was completed, I asked Peter Jackson if he was going to keep shooting at High Frame Rates – another significant advance in the storytelling possibilities of cinema that was badly positioned by the press and PR – and he said, very plainly that 3D and HFR will inevitably one day be the norm.

I hope he’s right. I think he might be. Personally, I just wish that day was already here.