The Three Dimensional Future

Worried about losing audience share to television, Hollywood decides to invest millions of dollars in upgrading  theaters to enhance its one technological advantage over its rival medium: the vast size of its images.  New projectors and sound systems are installed in theaters all over the country, including systems capable of projecting 3-D images.  Hollywood in 1954?  No.  Hollywood in 2008.

Beginning in 1949, film audiences began to shrink in direct proportion to the number of television sets in use, so that by the early 1950s more than half of US movie houses had closed their doors. The film industry responded by rapidly increasing the number of releases made in color (50% of all American movies in 1954), and it experimented with a variety of widescreen technologies.  Most famously, it experimented with 3-D movies. Between 1953 and 1954 Hollywood released 69 features in 3-D.  They were a huge hit at first, but audiences quickly grew tired of the eye strain and headaches caused by the 3-D glasses, and once the novelty wore off, it became obvious that the films were routine genre pictures, mostly Westerns, science-fiction films, and horror films. Despite the sudden crash and burn, Hollywood didn’t entirely give up on the 3-D process, occasionally testing the waters with a sci-fi release or a porn film.

Hollywood is dusting off its most eccentric technology once again with the recent success of several 3-D films, including Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. Seeing piles of cash in three dimensions, the studios currently have 10 new 3-D features in production. This time, however, the threat from television is only part of the story.  For one thing, the infrastructure of American movie houses has long been overdue for an upgrade.  Nearly half of all American movie theaters are quipped with 1970s-era projectors and sound systems. The arrival of digital film is inevitable because it saves distribution costs and, well, everybody else is doing it.

But the historical analogy between 1954 and 2008 only goes so far. Television isn’t the only enemy this time; the studios’ long dependence on big-budget blockbusters is also a threat. In some ways, the rollout of 3-D and other digital technologies is more like the arrival of sound in the late 1920s, when audiences were growing tired of the limitations of silent film.  Outfitting American theaters for sound represented a massive infrastructure investment comparable to the digitization of multiplexes today.  In both cases, Hollywood put off the upgrades as long as they could.  It wasn’t until the blockbusters no longer worked at the studios got desperate enough to make the investment. 

Already the summer 2009 release schedule is overcrowded with 3-D movies.  James Cameron, who is at his best working with very large inanimate objects, will release his 3-D action film Avatar.   Also coming out in the summer of 2009 are films starring guinea pigs and piranhas spectacularly rendered in three dimensions. In the meantime, digital films will really come out in force.  Perhaps the most anticipated digital film is Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which will cost about a dollar a pixel. The latest installment in the Indiana Jones franchise is sure to make wheel barrels full of cash, but the studios better be careful: The spiffy new digital film and ultrahigh fidelity sound will make it more likely we’ll hear Harrison Ford’s bones creak as he drags itself through an eye-catching postcolonial landscape.

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2 Comments

  1. I saw the U2 film in 3-D and I thought it was fantastic. I don’t see why 3-D can’t be here to stay. Just because they made a lot of bad films in 3-D in the 1950s doesn’t mean they can’t make good ones now.

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  2. You’re right — a 3-D film doesn’t have to be terrible. But another reason why 3-D films failed in the 1950s is that studios had a hard time making mainstream dramas and comedies in 3-D. I seem to remember that Hitchcock made a 3-D film, but I could be wrong. the problem with 3-D technology at the time was that was so obviously artificial. Widescreen technology, which was just coming into widespread use at the time,was actually better at rendering the illusion of three dimensions.
    Think of the video game, an even more sophisticated 3-D technology. They’re still confined to the action genres. I wouldn’t expect a video game version of Juno any time soon.
    Technically, there’s no reason why all movies can’t be in 3-D. Habits of spectatorship are pretty entrenched, though.

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