Box office figures are up in general, but if you look at the statistics for a movie that is released in both regular 2D and in 3D, even with the premium that is added to the 3D ticket price ($3 is the average) the 3-D showings end up with more people in seats. Most of the studios are now taking movies that were going to be released in 2D, and converting them for 3D screens as well (Warner Bros.' CLASH OF THE TITANS, due out in April, is one such film as was Disney's recent ALICE IN WONDERLAND release). The argument can easily be made that 3D is not going away anytime soon.
The cinema has always been a breeding ground for sweeping technical changes. The late 20s/early 30s saw the advent of sound, there was Technicolor, and then in the 50s Cinema-scope intended to give the movies a "big picture" event feeling by widening the screen and hopefully prying viewers away from their new small square TV sets. Sound then became Dolby stereo in the 80s and then DTS digital in the 90s, a decade which also marked the coming of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) which revolutionized special effects. Outside of holographic movies, digital 3D seems like the next logical step.
The idea of 3 dimensional movies is not a new one. It first appeared in the 1950s, usually with science fiction or horror movies (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for instance), and required that viewers wear cardboard glasses with a red and a blue lens that made the images seemingly pop off the screen. Kind of clunky and even with a slight resurgence in the 1980s with movies such as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and JAWS 3-D, it really never caught on as more than a passing fad.
Then IMAX stepped into the picture. IMAX can easily be included among the technological leaps l listed above – again most people know this but just in case, it is a large film format that projects on a screen several stories high and for the most part when introduced, was found in museums and science centers with educational-like subject matter. IMAX slowly made its way into regular Cineplexes (one of the first big commercial made-for-IMAX films was Disney's FANTASIA 2000) and eventually started presenting 3D movies which still require glasses to make the effect work, however the glasses are sturdier and don't have multi-colored lenses. When Hollywood movies (Warner Bros. particularly which I think really started in earnest with THE MATRIX RELOADED) started being presented on IMAX screens, it wasn't long before 3D started showing up in them as well. I believe the first feature length commercial film to be in IMAX 3D was Robert Zemeckis' THE POLAR EXPRESS (again Warner Bros.), and then later both SUPERMAN RETURNS and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX both included 3D sequences (however the films themselves were not entirely in 3D). The effect was truly amazing. A very big screen with the movie literally popping out at you in digital 3D glory, it was (and still is) truly worth paying the extra money for.
The next step was of course to bring digital 3D into regular cinemas. At a cost of about a couple of hundred thousand dollars, a regular cinema screen can be converted into digital 3D thanks to the Real 3D Theatrical System (Disney, as they usually do, has branded all their 3D movies as presented in "Disney Digital 3D", keeping up that idea that the magic comes to you directly from the Disney factory). Now there are thousands of 3D screens across the United States and Canada, and increasingly every weekend, new 3D film releases. While in the past a 3D release generally enjoyed multiple screens for long periods of time, now with all the new titles coming out it's becoming quite a battle for the studios to hold onto those screens which of course (again thanks to the $3 premium) bring in larger box office grosses.
So why has 3D become so popular again now? Could it be thanks to the economic crash from the past couple of years that audiences are craving escape more and more, and the 3D world offers a whole new way to immerse oneself into the movies' promise of make-believe? Or is it that movies themselves, thanks to mediocre titles and an over abundance of technology that just seems to have taken the fun out of it, have lost their "wow" factor? My guess would be a little bit of both, but I want to focus specifically on the second point.
As great as CGI is, I fear that it has taken some of what I like to call "the wow factor" out of the movies. Effects are so sophisticated now, and the majority of films being released not only utilize them, but are almost jam packed with effects from opening to ending credits (in many cases, like 300, SIN CITY, AVATAR or STAR WARS - EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH, entire movies have been shot using green screen with digital effects replacing actual locations) that when the next big trailer hits, and they show some CGI creature or big action moment it almost feels like a "yeah, yeah whatever" factor sets in. I am going to reference the trailer for the aforementioned CLASH OF THE TITANS as a prime example. At the end of the trailer, Liam Neeson belts out the line "RELEASE THE KRAKEN" which is followed by a scene of a large CGI creature wreaking complete havoc. Years ago, that moment might have given me chills, but again thanks to all the CGI creatures that have been in the movies – especially over the last 10 years (LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy anyone?), this supposedly awe inspiring bit of coolness is met with ambivalence. CLASH OF THE TITANS has been converted to a 3D movie, and the idea of seeing that creature bursting off the screen has made me a little more excited for that movie (granted, I was already looking forward to it).
This brings me of course to last year's super-blockbuster AVATAR. By now everyone has probably heard about James Cameron's journey to make AVATAR, and his 15 year wait for the technology to become available. The super-expensive process used to shoot the movie in 3D was created specifically to make AVATAR a reality which now it is officially the highest grossing movie of all time (and is still raging on in theaters) beating out Cameron's own 1997 TITANIC for the top spot. AVATAR on its own is a below average movie, and had it been in 2D only I highly doubt that it would be enjoying the financial success that it is having right now. However, the 3D world of AVATAR is so immersive, it really does capture that aforementioned "wow factor" and audiences have been backing it up. I saw the first 20 minutes screened at last year's San Diego Comic-Con – in 3D – and was completely absorbed by how the technology really made the world come alive. While the movie itself was a letdown, I still found myself torn between my technical appreciation of the film and the fact that it's just not a very good movie. In fact, the 3D in AVATAR made such an impact, that the extremely high-brow film publication FILM COMMENT (which is one of my favorite film magazines btw) even devoted space about it in their January/February 2010 issue, basically caving into the idea of 3D and the fact that it is here to stay as a valid artistic and commercial choice.
What AVATAR proves, as well as Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND – which also a 3D release which took in over $116 million in its opening weekend and another $62 this past weekend – is that audiences will fill theater seats if you give them a reason too, and 3D may just well be that added incentive. Of course the movie still has to back it up, I mean people aren't going to flock to say a dud like BASIC INSTINCT 2 (although the cheese factor might draw some people – imagine the possibilities if Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS had been in 3D?) even if it's in 3D but people still want bang for their buck, and the big picture still rules the day which is becoming more and more prevalent considering what movies are succeeding these days.
In 1992, a review for Ron Howard's FAR AND AWAY in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY boldly stated that the days of the "epic movie" are gone – this was of course followed by several epic movies that proved that statement to be dead-on-arrival (BRAVEHEART or TITANIC anyone?). 3D in many ways is an extension of the idea of the epic. Like Cinema-Scope did in the 1950s, it has expanded the viewing experience to a new frontier – that is, in the viewer's lap. What was once found mainly in science centers or theme park rides is now available at your local Cineplex for that popular movie you really want to see.
Now of course, 3D is about to enter the home market with Samsung's 3D TV set and 3D Blu-Ray player (the Playstation 3 which ha Blu-Ray playback capabilities is already 3D compatible thanks to an upcoming firmware update) employing the same technology as digital cinemas. Fox has also just announced that ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS is to be the first movie Blu-Ray 3D release (I believe also this year's WORLD CUP Soccer competition is not only slated to be released as a 3D Blu-Ray but also BROADCAST in 3D). Once the spectacle is available at home, will that again alter the "wow factor" of the theater going experience? While yes, home screening rooms have eaten into box office profits over the years (especially for smaller and mid-range movies), I still think that audiences no matter what still crave that experience of going out for the evening (or matinee) and taking in the latest offering from Hollywood. It only makes sense too that people will want to relive that same experience at home. The whole idea of home entertainment – especially for Cinephiles – has always been trying to recapture that theatrical experience as much as possible. It will be interesting to see just how home-based 3D entertainment catches on beyond the hard-cores that are known as "early adapters" (many of whom are now stuck with defunct HD DVD players thanks to Blu-Ray winning the high def format war).
Of course I'm still a firm believe that content is king, and while I do enjoy 3D - UP and CORALINE are particular titles that I thought used the process extremely well – I will still go to see movies on a big screen with an audience even if it's just regular 2D, and am under no belief that a film NEEDS to be presented in 3D to succeed. It's a nice bonus though. Long live the cinema!