What does the future look like for 3-D?

by Kevin Smead

On a cold January night in 2009, every single one of my friends drove to Los Angeles to see Cold War Kids. It was a Saturday night and, with all our friends gone, my then-girlfriend and I had to figure out a plan for the evening. After we went to dinner, we decided to go watch James Cameron’s latest “Avatar.” After forking out nearly $40 for tickets, I felt “Avatar” should be the best damn movie I’d ever see. And you know what? It was pretty good.

The plot was nothing to freak out about. We’ve all heard the comparisons (“It’s just ‘Pocahontas.’” “They totally ripped off ‘FernGully: The Last Rainforest.’”) and the criticisms (“This is just another, ‘Hey look at me, I’m James Cameron’ project.’”). After processing the film’s three-hour saccharine visuals, I ultimately came to the conclusion “Avatar” was like ordering mac and cheese at a fancy steakhouse. Sure, in the end, it’s just mac and cheese, but it’s some tasty mac and cheese. After dining, you feel fulfilled having indulged a little in something not quite groundbeaking at its core, but 100 percent trailblazing in its production (or cooking process, if you’re still on board with the mac and cheese thing).

After seeing “Avatar,” my distaste for the burgeoning 3-D market was mostly quashed and I was excited to see what this new cinematic technology would bring despite my gripes about ticket prices. I guess now I can only blame myself for getting my hopes up.

What eventually came in “Avatar’s” wake was a host of mostly mediocre children’s films, which really only existed because the studios could now make boatloads of money off inflated ticket sales. While some films did meet expectations in regards to their 3-D (more on that in a moment), most didn’t. But before we really get into quality, let’s take a look at some numbers.

The “Avatar” craze hadn’t even ended before it was easily the highest-grossing film of all time, passing “Titanic” and racking up a total of $1.858 billion just 39 days after its release. In March of 2010, Variety reported a 12 percent increase for first-quarter domestic box office totals in 2010 versus 2009, claiming, “Studios are counting on the flood of 3D titles to generate big B.O. bucks.”

Domestic (U.S./Canada) film attendance also grew 7 percent, increasing from 300 million to 321 million. The figures painted an optimistic picture because in 2009, the domestic box office reached a record of $10.6 billion; this remained the total in 2010.

However, the numbers began to fade away in 2011, dropping 4 percent from the previous year. According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s annual report, ticket sales were driven by “frequent moviegoers,” a group accounting for half of total ticket sales, while only consisting of 10 percent of the population. 3-D wasn’t attracting anyone new and, as indicated by the declining ticket sales, wasn’t retaining its audience.

Also, it was made clear that 3-D was something mainly appealing to a younger audience. Continuing the trend from 2010, 51 percent of filmgoers in 2011 viewed at least one 3-D movie. Of that 51 percent, the MPAA found the typical moviegoer older than 25 only saw an average of one 3-D movie, while those younger than 25 saw two.

Meanwhile, the number of 3-D screens increased and the number of 3-D films being released declined. With the conversion of cinemas to an all-digital (though not necessarily 3-D) format in full swing, the MPAA places the number of digital 3-D capable screens in the U.S. and Canada at 13,695.

What do these statistics mean? Basically, in pure monetary terms, “Avatar” caused a surge in the industry, which is again declining. Large amounts of money were spent on 3-D films with hopes of a formidable return, with a specifically prominent showing from Disney and DreamWorks. Now, the possibility looms of spending copious amounts of money on converting theaters to 3-D, only to have them never be fully utilized because of declining interest. In the end, is 3-D really just a fad?

That’s where it gets tricky. Every new cinematic innovation is often met with some sort of resistance from purists and 3-D is no exception. There are those who will always hate 3-D and never give it a chance. Their position is an unfortunate one, for we’ve all seen what the technology can do. There have been a number of films where 3-D actually enhanced the experience, rather than acting as a post-production gimmick. Generally, these films were actually shot in 3-D instead of converted from 2-D, a common cost-saving strategy.

Ironically enough, one film to best utilize this technology was the ever classy “Jackass 3-D.” While everyone retains their own opinions of “Jackass,” being shot in full 3-D gave the movie a distinct advantage above films shot in 2-D and later converted (see: any superhero film in the last two years). Despite “Jackass’” success, nearly every other schlocky spectacle 3-D movie doesn’t fare as well. For every “Toy Story 3,” there is a “Piranha 3D,” “The Last Airbender” and “Clash of the Titans.”

This raises a philosophical conundrum about the new technology’s role in cinema. Is it still valuable and legitimate if one of its best uses is to shoot a dildo out of a cannon over the audience? Should we look at films such as Ang Lee’s upcoming “Life of Pi” to bring some legitimacy to 3-D? These are big, open questions that have yet to be answered.

Perhaps a good indication lies in the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Picture. Kathryn Bigelow’s zeitgeist war drama “The Hurt Locker” faced off against the film I began this discussion with: Cameron’s “Avatar.” In the end, regardless of all the money and technological advances Cameron’s sci-fi epic made, it still didn’t beat out the raw, human emotion in Bigelow’s film.

It seems the real issue lies in the films made rather than the medium used. We’ve stared into the future, having seen the current benchmark for 3-D filmmaking in Cameron’s film. I just now remain cautiously optimistic for a time when 3-D can take a great movie and make it better, rather than taking a bad movie and making it money.