It seems every month or so, a new trend or blip on the radar is hailed as the new box office savior at the multiplex. In the past couple of weeks, "The Lion King" has spurred conversations that studios may find new revenue streams by dusting off their catalog titles and bringing them back to the big screen. Earlier this year, backed by the surprise box office success of "The Adjustment Bureau," "The Lincoln Lawyer," "True Grit," "Black Swan" and later in the summer, "Midnight In Paris," the minor budget adult drama was seen an untapped and lucrative market. But before all of this, 3D was heralded as the game changer for the industry that kick new life into tanking ticket sales. The nearly $3 billion worldwide success of James Cameron's "Avatar" ushered in a wave of 3D movies that, early on, did indeed give studios a considerable revenue bump. While the actual quality of these (mostly converted) movies was wildly uneven, it seemed audiences were embracing the format. Theater owners who invested millions in buying digital projectors and upgrading their cinemas breathed a sigh of relief, but something strange happened in 2011. No one was rushing to 3D anymore.
While the reasons are numerous as to why audiences were now balking at 3D -- an extra $3 to $4 per ticket, combined with slipshod effects and sometimes poorly projected movies -- the bottom line was that the gravy train was no longer a guarantee. In an excellent article over at Slate a couple of weeks ago, they laid down the hard facts. While in 2009 and 2010, studios found they were earning between 50% and 100% more money from 3D ticket sales, this year that figure dropped dramatically. Summer movies, for example, like "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Green Lantern" actually earned one-third less in 3D than they did in 2D. Ouch. And moreover, the overall trend since 2009 has seen 3D revenues on a downward slope. So with all of that in mind, THR reports that for some reason, Sony is alerting cinema owners that as of May 2012, the studio will no longer front the cost of 3D glasses.
It may surprise most cinemagoers now -- considering they already pay a premium ticket price just to walk into a 3D screening -- but every major studio has covered the cost of those uncomfortable, clunky glasses since the resurgence of the format. And admittedly, it ain't cheap. According to the trade, studios will spend between $5 million to $10 million on glasses worldwide (though most of the cost is in North America), with cinema owners getting paid after the fact based on ticket sales. But Sony wants that to stop next May, and you can probably guess why. They've got two very expensive 3D summer tentpoles "Men In Black 3" (May 25, 2012) and "The Amazing Spider-Man" (July 3, 2012) and they are going to need to squeeze every dollar they can. So, to help them out, Sony wants audiences to buy the glasses themselves.
That's right, during an economic downturn when it's already difficult for most families -- hell, most average Americans -- to go to the theaters, Sony wants to add an extra cost on top. Now, buying your own glasses is common overseas in places like U.K., Australia, Italy and Spain -- and that's fine -- but it's going to be a very hard sell to tell audiences that something that was once "free" (sort of) is now going to cost them even more. Remember Sony (and other studios who are contemplating a similar move), audiences are already turning down the bloating surcharge for 3D, asking them to buy glasses is basically giving them every reason possible just to go see the damn movie in 2D. Granted, you can already keep the glasses you pay for now but even if you bring them back, you'll still be tagged with an extra fee. Now if theaters eliminated that surcharge this could work, but that would presume exhibitors would want to say goodbye to an extra $3 to $4 per ticket. Not bloody likely.
Undoubtedly, theater owners are going to fight this tooth and nail. They argue, they've already spent millions on converting their theaters for a format that is already seeing them play 3D movies to smaller and smaller crowds, and forcing more costs on their customers doesn't make sense. But the studios will push for this one hard too as this is a costly expense they would prefer to do without. However, playing chicken with audiences who are already sick of exorbitant ticket prices could backfire. Faced with seeing "Men In Black 3" for an extra (let's say for the sake of argument) $4-8 versus the same movie or something else in 2D for less...well, we know what decision we would make.