Put Down the Red and Blue Glasses

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There are three sides to the debate about 3D films. Camp one, mostly moviegoers whose heads are still spinning from Avatar, prefers 3D films because they offer a more immersive experience than 2D films. Camp two, dominated by film critics and other curmudgeons, says 3D films are awful because they’re just as gimmicky now as they were in the 1950s and they will eventually go away once the novelty wears off. Camp three, consisting largely of media conglomerate executives, argues that 3D technology is not only here to stay, but it will eventually become the standard for cinema and, further into the future, for television.

 The distinguished sound designer and film editor Walter Murch is squarely in camp two. He gives a highly technical explanation for why 3D technology won’t ever work. Essentially, he argues that our brains have to work too hard to process the visual information offered by 3D films. He concludes that 3D films are “dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realize and get fed up?”

There are signs that that’s already happening. Avatar got everybody in the mood for 3D, and for a while the economics were compelling: the 3D version of a film typically accounted for 60-70% of a film’s gross. European and Asian markets have upgraded to 3D technologies even faster than the U.S., but only Hollywood has the industrial capacity to make 3D films in volume. At a time when DVD sales are dropping, 3D films are a critical revenue stream for Hollywood studios.

That is, until Toy Story 3. The Pixar/Disney film was released on more 3D screens than any other film, yet it became the first 3D film to gross less on a per-screen basis than its 2D version. Despicable Me only grossed 2% more in 3D format than in 2D. (Avatar did 70% better in 3D.) Slate’s Daniel Engber crunches the numbers on 3D–a lot of numbers–and concludes, “I believe that audiences are gradually losing interest in 3-D movies.” The reasons for the decline in revenue are in dispute, and Engber isn’t so certain himself, but the trends are pretty clear: 3D is heading toward oblivion as an economically-viable technology.

The numbers aren’t any better on the production side of the equation. It costs $30 million to create a two-hour 3D movie. There’s a 2D to 3D conversion process that’s cheaper–a mere $100,000 a minute, or $12 million for a two-hour film–but the results are often inferior. Thirty million is a fixed cost: there’s no indie film discount, as there is with actors. So films like The Kids Are All Right will probably never be made in 3D, at least not until the costs come down dramatically. The film was made for $4 million and grossed $20 million. Adding 3D technology is unlikely to attract enough additional viewers to cover the extra cost. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s vision of a totally 3D cinema looks dimmer than a 3D shot in Clash of the Titans.

Interestingly, after declaring 3D films doomed, Engber published a piece today in response to the Murch article in which Engber claims 3D headaches go away after 20 or 30 screenings. Engber hopes that now maybe Roger Ebert will shut up already about 3D. At any rate, the summer of 2011 may be the tipping point for 3D films, but tipping in the wrong direction.

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