Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Is 3D dying or has it merely stumbled?

The future for 3D looks pretty bleak, but are things as bad as they seem?

Two weeks ago, I was able to ask Mark Kermode a question: how long do you think 3D has to last? “Less than 12 months”, he replied. I was staggered by his confidence. After all, there are two big films coming up this year which will make money in 3D, namely the Spielberg-Jackson production of Tintin and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Then, in 15 months’ time, we have The Hobbit in 3D. There seems to be plenty of opportunity for the medium to fire itself back to life.

However, the fact is that 2011 has been a bad year so far for the third dimension. Mars Needs Moms was a mega-flop. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made more money from its 2D screenings, whilst Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which studios saw as something of a last hope, turned out to be, at best, a satisfactory 3D performer. Harry Potter’s final outing generated a lot of anger from audiences as the film mainly takes place at night, and the 30% colour loss in 3D led to sepulchral screenings. The public seem to be rejecting 3D en masse.

So it was that Dr Kermode was able to point with glee to a survey carried out on British filmgoers which suggested that 3Ds days are numbered. Only 19% of people think that a film is improved by 3D, whilst 41% called it a gimmick. Crucially, more than a third said that it had nothing to do with the inflated cost of 3D and that they would rather have 2D if prices were equal.

Despite all of this, I do not share Dr Kermode’s optimism. I hope that he is right and I am wrong, but I do not think that the forecast is as gloomy for 3D as we would like.

In response to those figures, I think they do not point to the death knell of 3D but rather to the fact that 3D releases need to be downscaled. After all, around about 50% of people said that 3D made no difference at all, and 52% seem to mainly have a problem with the glasses. These are not the statistics of rejection and I believe that the admittedly muted support for 3D expressed in corners of this survey do nevertheless point to a market which has not dismissed the medium.

Furthermore, this survey coincides with the unexpectedly strong success of the re-release of The Lion King in 3D in the US over the last two weeks. The film has topped the North American Box Office in both weeks of its release, taking just over $60mn. Whilst critics were underwhelmed by the addition of 3D, there is evidence that a lot of moviegoers really enjoyed not just the film but the 3D also. The fact is that this has been something of an event, and when the film comes to the UK at the start of next month, I shall find it hard to resist, even though I hate 3D. I love that film and it is my earliest memory of going to the cinema. If I get the opportunity, I have to go and see it again, and I won’t be alone in that view.

That sense of 3D contributing to a cinematic event is going to be its saving grace. For many people, 3D is essential for an event movie, labouring, as they appear to do, under the misapprehension that you haven’t seen a certain film if you haven’t seen it in 3D. Certainly, that was one of the reasons for Avatar’s phenomenal success, but there hasn’t actually been a real 3D event since then, and that is one of the causes of 3D’s decline.

The gimmick is undoubtedly stalling and many people are getting sick and tired of it, but many others still from a market for 3D, and with the studios having invested a lot of money in it they will be reluctant to let it die. The answer will be the scaling down of operations so that they can make more money from fewer films. For instance, James Cameron’s Avatar sequels will have event status, and Tintin may well achieve that, as the 3D-exclusive re-release of The Lion King has. What links them is that they give audiences a reason (or simply no choice but) to go and see the film in 3D rather than just go and see the film.

This has only ever been about money and we all know it. What the execs will find from the figures is that there’s still money to be made out there, but that the operation needs to be scaled back: 3D is simply not going to conquer all.

3D has stuttered but it has not yet died, nor does it have to. In his excellent book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, the eminent Dr Kermode says that this is just a little piece of history repeating itself: 3D has never survived long before and always dies in the end. What he does not give enough credence to is the fact that there’s enough interest in the medium for it to keep on coming back.

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