By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist December 29, 2011 at 2:31PM
If there is a single cinematic subject that seems to unite commenters, bloggers, filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors in vehemence, it has to be the rise/fall of the exciting new format/gimmicky fad that is the post-“Avatar” 3D film. However, rather frustratingly if you’re, say, researching an article on 3D, the balance of opinion doesn’t really tip in either direction when it comes to this chatter: for every pundit who declares the format moribund and swears off it entirely, there’s another insisting that it’s here to stay and anyone who doesn’t embrace it is a luddite and a fool. Amusingly, their interpretations may be entirely at odds, but they are often citing exactly the same statistics.
So while we can practically hear the cracking of knuckles and the lubrication of the outrage glands of both the pro- and anti-3D factions in anticipation of whatever we have to say, undeterred, we are plunging headlong into the fray to take a look back at what 3D did for 2011 at the movies, and what 2011 did for 3D. Beware falling masonry, thudding arrows and berries popped at you off The Rock’s pecs, put on your dorky glasses and pay us an extra 3 bucks for the privilege, thanking you.
Firstly, it should be noted that we leave 2011 in much a much better frame of mind towards 3D than we entered it: January’s big 3D release “The Green Hornet” was a mess, and displayed the worst excesses of both a post-conversion cash grab, and a substandard generic January release. Spin forward twelve months and we get Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” -- everything ‘Hornet’ was not -- shot in 3D, lovingly designed for the format, and a celebration of its dramatic potential that detractors (like us) hadn’t really glimpsed. While perfect for grandeur and spectacle, even "Avatar" arguably didn't immerse us in the dramatic texture that Scorsese demonstrated in "Hugo." Perhaps this is why James Cameron himself started doing the press rounds with Scorsese, clearly impressed with what a true artist and auteur could bring to the medium.
And Scorsese was not the only auteur to embrace the format recently -- arthouse darlings Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog both recognised 3D’s capacity for sensory, not-necessarily-narrative enhancement in dance bio “Pina” and documentary (barring the odd fake crocodile) “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” respectively. That the former was, at least to some of us, breathtakingly beautiful but deathly dull, and the latter, again, subjectively, occasionally quease-inducing with its handheld 3D photography, is unfortunately true, but there can be little doubt that the novelty of seeing this type of fare in the added dimension more normally reserved for Shit Blowing Up Real Good helped nudge their numbers skywards. The Herzog film, in fact, became the unexpected arthouse hit of the year, probably as a direct result.
But the second we’re tempted to therefore conclude that 2011 was the year 3D got respectable, Mickey Rourke flings a severed head in our face: there was waaaay more crass misuse of the format in would-be tentpole pictures than there was interesting experimentation on the fringes. And even those big event movies that got it more or less right (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” arguably a couple of Marvel films) were vastly outweighed by the headache-inducing dross of “Transformers 3,” “Immortals,” ‘Pirates 4,’ Pixar’s first serious stumble with “Cars 2” and the true horror of the disastrous “The Green Lantern.” But how much can we blame 3D for those latter films’ creative failings? Very little: they sucked in 2D too. But we can blame 3D for the fact that in each of those latter cases, we’re $12 rather than $9 poorer, with nothing to show for it but the little red marks on the sides of our noses.
Because yes, a discussion of 3D always comes down to a discussion of cash money. If the format was the same price as 2D there’d be little debate, but dupe us into watching crap at a higher-than-standard price, and we’re going to feel bamboozled and not a little pissed. And the idea that the additional revenue generated by the unasked-for extra dimension in some of the aforementioned films might suggest “sequel” to some bright Hollywood spark is truly fucking heartbreaking.
If such additional revenue is actually to be had. And here’s where we get into the choppy waters of trying to analyze 2011’s 3D box office stats without our heads exploding. You see, 2011 has also been called the year that 3D plateaued. But considering 2011 had the lowest cinema attendance overall since 1995, how much of this slowdown in 3D is merely reflective of a wider trend, and how much due to the 3D itself? Well, if we confine our analysis to the top ten 3D movies of all time (via Box Office Mojo): it features just 3 from 2011 (despite a record 40+ films being released in the format this year) as opposed to 5 from 2010, so it does seem like the initial excitement over the format is passing. And when you have such luminaries as Jeffrey Katzenberg publicly bemoaning the dip in 3D movie attendance (or rather the lack of consistent, and in retrospect, unsustainable growth in those numbers) then you know a whole lot of folk in Hollywood are nervous about the basket into which they’ve put many of their eggs.
But a lot of this wariness, it seems to us, stems from a misrepresentation of what 3D was ever going to do for a movie’s numbers in the first place: as Kristen Thompson points out crisply in her mid-year analysis, the raving about 3D bringing in 40-60% of a film’s profits is just plain misleading, since it assumes that that 40-60% of the audience would not have gone to see the film at all in 2D. And no matter how much of a 3D advocate you are, you can’t honestly believe that it is solely the steroscopic format that gets those bums on seats: anecdotal evidence and plain old common sense suggests that people don’t go to see movies in 3D that they wouldn’t have gone to see anyway in 2D. And so the actual bottom-line difference 3D makes to a film’s take is not $12 per 3D ticket, but around $3, less whatever it costs to hand out the glasses etc. Of course, across thousands of screens worldwide, that differential mounts up, but to a lot less than has been regularly trumpeted.
So bearing in mind that there exist more sophisticated matrices of market analysis than ours (which consists of Box Office Mojo, a calculator and a tub of mango yogurt for sustenance), what is the 3D bottom line for 2011? As far as we can make out, 3D movies, year to date, brought in approximately $3.175 billion domestically: a little over a third of 2011’s $9.244 billion domestic overall total. But again, this does not mean we can simplistically congratulate those 40-odd 3D movies for earning a third of the total take from 589-odd theatrically released 2011 films, since the 3D films were of course heavily weighted towards the kind of summer tentpole that yields big bucks even in a paltry 2 dimensions. Indeed, numbers 3 and 4 for the year (‘Twilight’ and ‘Hangover 2’) aren’t even in the format, and land between ‘Transformers 3’ and ‘Pirates 4,’ which are. And even if we roughly remove a quarter of the 3D movies’ grosses, to account for the $3/$12 differential, (a gross overestimation in any case since not every ticket sold would have been a 3D ticket) the very top of the chart would hardly change at all, though maybe ‘Pirates 4’ would slip behind ‘Fast Five.’ So, if anything, this proves that people will go see dreadful sequels to already tedious films, however many dimensions they’re in. Um, yay?
One thing we can agree with Katzenberg on, however, is that the levelling off of audience attendance at 3D films is at least partially because we’ve been burned by inferior product one too many times now. And audiences getting wise and often choosing the cheaper 2D option led to what actually might, in the long run, be one of 2011’s most heartening 3D related moments, though it comes from the unlikely figure of one Michael Bay. Knowing that one of the most frequent accusations aimed at 3D was the darkness and low-contrast nature of the picture quality, and also possibly that his films generally have little to recommend them other than their shininess, Bay issued a specially brightened version of his small, personal labor of love, “Transformers 3.” That it wasn’t on every 3D screen, nor was there any way of telling which theaters had the brighter transfer is kind of less the point than that this is a tacit admission by the Hollywood establishment (is there anyone more establishment than Bay?) that there are things wrong with the current standard of 3D films, and that some way of addressing these issues needs to be found if we’re going to get the auds back. And this from a filmmaker not necessarily known for respecting his audience. It’s not much, but perhaps just the tendrils, the green shoots of a future which may not guarantee superior films for your superior outlay, but can at least ensure that you’re not paying more to have a worse time at the movies from a technical standpoint.
Because cost is one barrier to 3D attendance, in these recessionary times, but aesthetics are another. There are those who argue that 3D, despite its seeming immersive nature, actually, by virtue of the glasses and the nature of the human eye, just creates more barriers to a viewer’s ability to lose himself in a film. Indeed it was for similar aesthetic, and scientific reasons put forward by respected film editor Walter Murch that film critic/Godhead Roger Ebert declared the format not just in decline but finished, caput, ka-blammo. While many of us Playlisters sympathize with the attitude behind that point of view, with 25+ 3D films already slated for next year, not including reissues, it would appear reports of 3D’s death are at least premature, if not simple wishful thinking. So rather than washing our hands of it altogether, shouldn’t we be at the forefront of lobbying to improve the 3D experience, as it’s clearly not going away any time soon?
Maybe it’s a hangover of the sense of possibility that “Hugo” left us with, and to a lesser extent, Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and the last ‘Harry Potter,’ but even we have to admit grudgingly that on rare occasions, 3D can genuinely add something to the filmgoing experience that might be worth a few extra quid (though maybe not the further added charge for glasses that Sony is threatening us with). Absolutely not, however, in the case of the aforementioned goddamned reissues. “Top Gun 3D”? Really? And let’s not forget to lay a wreath at the graveside of George Lucas’ integrity, as he goes back to the "Star Wars" well for the gazumpteenth time to 3D-imify and re-release those hideous prequels. It’s not pretty to beg, but please, please, please, everyone: stay away in your droves. If 2011 has taught us anything, it’s that the Hollywood powers-that-be are right now hypersensitive to how we as punters respond to 3D films: we may have already missed a trick in allowing “Hugo” to open to such small numbers -- let’s not compound our future misery by letting them think that retreading old ground is a surefire shortcut to $$$.
Even more insidiously, perhaps, the movie industry is beginning to learn something that the music industry had to figure out in order to survive, what with their bonus, deluxe re-release and reunion tours and classic album tours: when Gen-X & Y audiences begin to age into Gen-Boomers, the way to lure them back into consumption is via the canny weapon of nostalgia. In some cases, not only can they relive the experience again themselves, as in the case of Disney's 3D re-release of "The Lion King," they can actually introduce the brand to their children and start the consumption cycle all over again. The movie industry isn't ignorant of this idea, but the concept only took off in August when the "The Lion King" proudly roared to #1 at the box-office (for two weeks in a row) and studio heads went, "holy shit, what have we already created that we could dust off and throw back into theaters?" And others had already been planning this for quite some time. See Lucas' "Star Wars" move above and Peter Jackson's talk about re-releasing "Lord Of The Rings" in 3D (which will eventually happen) and don't forget the 3D re-release of James Cameron's "Titanic" next April. Disney themselves sure as shit took notice. A few short weeks after the re-success of "The Lion King," Disney announced the 3D re-release of "Beauty And The Beast," "Finding Nemo," "Monsters Inc." and "The Little Mermaid." As these are lucrative brands just sitting there, we can only presume we're going to see this trend continue in 2012 and beyond.
If you sense a certain resignation in our demeanor, you’d be right. While we’re as wary about some of the mooted 3D projects as ever (we’re um, curious to see how Baz Luhrmann makes longing and heartbreak boing off the screen into our laps in “The Great Gatsby 3D,” for example), we’ve also been given more reason than before to be hopeful that the format may yet yield a few further gems (Alfonso Cuaron's epic spacy odyssey in 3D, "Gravity," we're looking at you and to a slightly lesser degree, "The Hobbit"). And since we can’t expect ‘Avatar’s 2 and 3 until 2014 and probably 2015, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything like a cessation in 3D moviemaking before then (never, ever bet against Cameron). So, you know, we have serious reservations, but also a dose of cautious optimism that we absolutely didn’t feel this time last year. Yes, we no doubt have yet to suffer the worst that 3D is going to literally throw at us (you just know someone’s writing a script right now that will ensure we get to actually experience what it might be like to be a fart emerging from Adam Sandler’s asshole), but maybe for every ten bad/mediocre efforts, we’ll get a good one. That ratio, after all, is not so very different from that of the standard-format movies that we deal with every day, and it hasn’t dimmed our enthusiasm for those, now has it?