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The Incredible Shrinking 3-D Audience

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by Leonard Maltin
May 15, 2013 12:01 AM
21 Comments
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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.

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. 

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.

 

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21 Comments

  • mike weeks | January 29, 2014 6:29 PMReply

    If people dislike 3d, See the 2d verson. Theatres give you a choice. Why do they have to spoil it for people like 3d. They are wrong to chargeing extra for glasses. Let you keep your old glasses and use them for the next upcoming 3d movie.

  • Jesse Skeen | October 12, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    Most of this article would not even have been written if there hadn't BEEN any separate 2D showings of 3D movies. If I made a movie in 3D, I would not want it shown in 2D. I also however would not be greedy and charge extra for 3D- theater prices are already too high as it is! I'm sure a lot of people don't care about multi-channel sound either (and some probably don't even like it), but theaters aren't charging extra for that, or running some shows with mono sound!
    I have a home 3D system and love it- have been buying all the 3D Blu-Rays I can afford. I usually avoid post-converted 3D though as there's no reason not to shoot in true 3D. Blu-Rays are a much better value than the overpriced theater experience with its small screens and annoying pre-show ads.

  • RY | May 19, 2013 1:07 AMReply

    I do always try and check if a movie was filmed in 3D or converted. The converted ones just don't work as well. And if Hollywood would actually think things through putting out a film with poor 3D means anyone that sees that movie may not/will not choose 3D the next time. If "Green Hornet" had been the first movie I saw in 3D it would have been the last movie I would have seen in 3D.

  • RY33 | May 19, 2013 1:02 AMReply

    We went to see "Star Trek: Into Darkness" tonight and our usual theater of choice had NO 3D shows in the evening. The latest one was 6:10. Yet they still had four shows of "Jurassic Park 3D" weeks after that opened.

  • Elizabeth | May 16, 2013 2:40 AMReply

    Thanks for your article. As an avid movie goer from an early age, I did not like 3D in the 50's, it seemed a gimmick which distracted from most movies, except the cheap monster movies.

    As the years went on, I saw Lawrence of Arabia, Sound of Music, Ben Hur, and countless other "big" movies" without the need for 3D. And I hate wearing glasses and the extra charge.

    Was quite surprised a few years ago when all of a sudden there was this big PR push about 3D.
    And I thought the movie producers are going backwards. Why?

    Never thought it would come back and still don't see why this idea did. I suspect most people could care less either.

  • John | May 16, 2013 1:22 AMReply

    I suspect "The Great Gatsby" just didn't seem like it would be any better in 3-D than 2-D to most of us. Why pay $3,50 extra for it? For that matter either did Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" in 1954, even if those 3-D glasses only cost 10 cents. On the other hand with "Hugo", "The Life of Pi" and "Avatar" you would suspect that those films would benefit greatly from 3-D and you would be right. Same with "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Hondo" among others six decades earlier. 3-D made them even better!

    In my humble and ancient (I was there for "Bwana Devil" in 1953!) opinion 3-D is just a novelty and will always be just a novelty until (or IF) they perfect a system that lets us view it without glasses. That being said I have always enjoyed 3-D on a limited basis and hope it survives the inevitable shakeout. I'm also anxiously awaiting the third 3-D Festival in Hollywood and hoping some of the Golden Age (1953-1955) material shows up soon on 3-D Blu-ray discs. I know Bob Furmanek is doing his best to make that happen! Hey I'd even buy "Robot Monster" along with "Kiss Me Kate" and "Inferno"...but probably pass on turkeys like "Jesse James Vs. the Daltons" and "Drums of Tahiti". "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Dial M For Murder" are of course already available in 3-D on Blu-ray and look quite impressive.

  • RY | May 19, 2013 1:10 AM

    For me "The Great Gatsby" being in 3D is a signal that they didn't make a good movie. They needed the gimmick.

  • Michael Mallory | May 15, 2013 8:24 PMReply

    I've heard two different inside explanations for recent rush to 3-D: 1) That it was a way of forcing theatres to make the changeover to digital projection; and 2) That 3-D thwarts pirating. I don't know if really either is true. All I know is that "Audiences really want 3-D" is nowhere on the list under any number.

  • mike schlesinger | May 16, 2013 4:08 PM

    Both your theories are factually true; whether they were a conscious motivation is not so clear-cut.

  • Bob Furmanek | May 15, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    It is truly unfortunate that such outstanding 1953 3-D productions as Inferno, The Glass Web, Miss Sadie Thompson, Second Chance and I, the Jury are not available for 2013 evaluation.

    Many theaters did charge extra for 3-D presentations in 1953, usually ten cents. That's one reason when studio demands changed in September 1953 and exhibitors were able to open the films in 2-D, many advertised "No glasses needed."

    More information can be found in our article, What Killed 3-D?

  • mike schlesinger | May 15, 2013 7:52 PMReply

    I've been saying for a couple of years now that we'll never have a true test of 3-D's popularity until there's a level playing field--in other words, no surcharge for the glasses.

  • Kay | May 15, 2013 7:45 PMReply

    THANK YOU! I've been saying this for a while now! Brilliant as always, Leonard! Thanks for putting compelling voice to this overworked, headache-producing gimmick.

  • BC | May 15, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    If your brain suffers from low processing speed (also known as ADD), the 3-D effect can be a big distraction. Much of your mind's natural focus gets diverted to the gimmick and takes away from the drama. It's like having another ball to juggle. I don't remember anything of Sam Worthington's opening narration of Avatar.

    Also, it's not really an asthetic choice. Think of all the great essays written about the use of sound, light and color in cinema. It's almost impossible to describe wonderful use of 3-D beyond "wonderful use of 3-D." I guess that's because when it works best, it disappears into the story.

  • Bill Shepard | May 15, 2013 1:14 PMReply

    I'm a 3D nut. I attended both previous 3D Film Fests in Hollywood and will be going to this year's as well. However, I'm often disappointed by the exhibition of the current 3D releases because the screen is too damn dark, the theatre hasn't projected with the proper illumination level. Invariably, these same movies look wonderful on my 3D TV when they come out in Blu-ray 3D.

  • Jeff Jacobson | May 15, 2013 10:27 AMReply

    I will only see 3-D movies that were actually shot in 3-D. I don't bother with the post-converted ones.

  • Sam Ivans | May 15, 2013 8:01 AMReply

    Your analysis does not seem in any way complete. There is no death knell for 3D in these numbers. The fact that only 33% of patrons saw the 3D version could, as someone suggests here, be a reflection of how many theaters allocated screens to 3D screenings, it could be that "Gatsby" appeals to an older audience than, say, "Avatar" and therefore in the prime demographic for "Gatsby" there are more people who are resistant to using the glasses than in a film geared towards a younger demographic. It could also mean that more women went to see "Gatsby" than other 3D action movies and they might be less inclined to watch the film in 3D. No death knell here, just an incomplete picture of what this one number actually means. Be more sophisticated in your analysis Leonard and less opinionated and hopefully we'll all learn something more.

  • djgnaz | May 15, 2013 7:36 AMReply

    While more theaters are seeing the (2-D) writing on the screen by offering patrons the option of 2-D or 3-D screenings, IMAX continues to stand out as only offering 3-D showings on their screens. When you see this change, then the death rattle for 3-d will (finally) begin...

  • jd | May 15, 2013 3:54 AMReply

    The following are the movies that made the best use of 3D;
    Avatar,
    Hugo,
    Megamind,
    Life of PI.

  • aaron | May 15, 2013 1:27 AMReply

    3-D was created in 1838 and they are still trying to push it on us like it cures cancer. Every movie I've paid to much to see in this format was never a satisfying experience. IMAX on the other hand is great, but should be cheaper.

  • Bruce Wright | May 15, 2013 12:42 AMReply

    A better guide, what *percentage* of each format's capacity sold?

  • Bruce Wright | May 15, 2013 12:26 AMReply

    So 45% of the 2nd biggest weekend ever? What's 3d CAPACITY? How many tickets were sold to pple who missed the sold out 3d showtimes?

    Only 33% of pple seeing Gatsby saw it in 3d, but how many theaters are even willing to commit 3d screens to Gatsby with iron man 3 raking it in?

    Leonard, you need to cast this slump,if it is a slump, in better perspective. Was or was not Iron Man 3 the biggest opening weekend that 3d has ever had?

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