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The Incredible Shrinking 3-D Audience

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin May 15, 2013 at 12:01AM

While "The Great Gatsby" made a lot of money last weekend (box-office pundits said it “overperformed,” which means they called it wrong), only 33% of ticket buyers chose to see it in 3-D.
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3-D Looks Dead-204

While The Great Gatsby made a lot of money last weekend (box-office pundits said it “overperformed,” which means they called it wrong), only 33% of ticket buyers chose to see it in 3-D. I take this to mean that people intuited that there was no point to watching this particular movie through those pesky glasses. Even the box-office juggernaut Iron Man 3 could only persuade 45% of its audience to watch it in 3-D. When people have a choice, which isn’t always the case, a majority prefer to watch most movies in old-fashioned 2-D.

This isn’t just a matter of Americans becoming disillusioned by the medium: it comes down to dollars and cents. Why spend an additional $3 for glasses if you don’t have to, especially when so few of these films make bold or compelling use of the 3-D process? 3-D can be great fun, and can even enhance the moviegoing experience—but far too often it’s pointless.

I recently spoke to a producer who has a hot title coming out next year  and asked if it was going to be in 3-D. He told me that he isn’t shooting the film that way—few people do anymore because it’s cumbersome and costly—but it would definitely be released in 3-D because the studio wants to inflate its box-office numbers. It’s just as simple as that. Those $3 surcharges add up quickly, and line the pockets of both distributors and theater owners.

Another reason that 3-D isn’t going away is that the novelty value hasn’t worn off overseas, especially in the movie industry’s most lucrative new market, China.

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So it looks like we’re stuck with 3-D for the foreseeable future, like it or not. The biggest difference between the current situation and the 3-D fad of 1953 is that exhibitors didn’t charge extra for glasses back then. When the combination of mediocre movies and uncomfortable glasses caused interest to evaporate, they simply stopped making and showing the films in that medium.

The situation became so extreme that the premiere engagement of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder became an unintentional litmus test. To quote a definitive article on the subject by Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, “The World Premiere took place in Grace Kelly's hometown of Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 18 at the 2,200 seat Randolph Theater… After one preview performance on Tuesday and four showings on the 19th, the manager frantically contacted the studio and said that people were staying away in droves. He asked for permission to drop the 3-D and show it flat.

“On Sunday May 23, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline proclaimed: "Play's the Thing as Philadelphia Fans Spurn 3-D for 2-D Version of DIAL M." Mildred Martin wrote: "The first audiences proved to be a jury that could not only make up its mind, but could make it up in a hurry. In exhibitors' own terms, DIAL M literally died. And after just four performances on Wednesday, some long-distance telephoning to report complaints, the increasing skimpiness of customers--a good many of them making no bones of their dissatisfaction--permission was given to throw away the glasses and hastily switch to the 2-D version. Whereupon business at the Randolph took a turn for the better." (To read the whole article, which I highly recommend, click HERE. 

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Today’s movie industry is too greedy to serve the needs and desires of its core audience: they’ll still soak you for those extra three bucks as long as they can get away with it. It’s too bad, because indifferent 3-D discourages people from seeing films like Life of Pi that actually make brilliant, creative use of the medium.

Meanwhile, there’s good news on the horizon for 3-D aficionados: Jeff Joseph and Dennis Bartok are staging a 3rd edition of the World 3-D Expo at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood from September 6-15 this year. You can learn more at
 3-dfilmexpo.com but suffice it to say that this is an event you don’t want to miss. In addition to recently restored digital presentations, the producers will be screening original 35mm prints in dual-system projection, which has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Kiss Me Kate, House of Wax, Inferno, The French Line, It Came from Outer Space, and other gems will be shown along with a number of rarities—like a 1946 Russian adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. I’ll fill in more details as the date grows closer.

 

This article is related to: 3-D, Journal