This same time a year ago about the only people bemoaning 3-D films with regularity were critics. In the wake of “Avatar” — the highest grossing motion picture of all-time — every major studio girded their loins and chose to fully embrace the technology that would supposedly cure all of their economic ills. There was just enough box-office to legitimize the huge gamble and the numbers of audiences warming up to 3-D continued to increase, albeit at a snail’s pace.
A year later, these same paying audiences -- the ultimate jurors -- are starting to grumble and are avoiding 3-D in bigger numbers. The ones paying upwards to 30 percent more per ticket were enamored with the process from the get-go, have the disposable income and would pay to see anything in 3-D. For Mr. and Mrs. Joe Lunchbox and their 2.5 children, the extra cost simply cann't be justified with many also citing what critics have been saying for a while now: watching a 3-D movie is a largely unpleasant experience.
Apart from director James Cameron -- the guy behind "Avatar" -- no filmmaker had anything positive to say about 3-D. Directors of 3-D movies that came out after "Avatar" stated (most of them anonymously and/or off the record) that they had been pressured by the studio footing the bill to use 3-D whether they liked it or not.
This lead to a string of box-office and critical disappointments including but not limited to: "The Last Airbender," "Clash of the Titans," "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," "Piranha 3D," "My Soul to Take," "Gulliver's Travels" and "The Green Hornet." In addition to tanking all of these films were filmed in 2-D and converted to 3-D in post-production, lending them an even more artificial look and making them more of a chore to watch. "Alice in Wonderland" was the only one of these conversion films that was both a box-office and critical success but even its success come with a caveat. Even though the 3-D edition of "Alice" made more money, more people chose to watch it in 2-D.
The future of live-action 3-D got a huge boost when four filmmaking legends announced separately that their next projects would be in 3-D - Martin Scorsese ("Hugo"), Steven Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin"), Werner Herzog ("Caves of Forgotten Dreams") and Ridley Scott ("Prometheus"). Studio executives sighed and cheered while film critics (me included) decided to wait and give the technology one last year to legitimize its existence.
As Herzog's film was an art-house documentary, you can't hold its poor box-office performance against it. As of January 2, "Tintin" had done over $300 million, but only around $50 million of that was earned in the US. "Hugo" -- my favorite movie of 2011 which cost roughly $150 million to make -- has done only $57 million thus far. Scott's movie doesn't come until July, but he is already on record as saying he'll never make another 2-D movie again after seeing the capabilities 3-D offers. Let's see if he feels the same way if "Prometheus" fails to make a profit (its budget has been reported to be as high as $250 million).
Back to "Hugo" ... you might wonder why I would pick it as my favorite movie of the year since I detest 3-D so much. Truth be told, I have few gripes regarding the 3-D technology -- provided it's handled with care by people (Cameron, Scorsese, Herzog) who know what they're doing. My problem is that it's being applied without any kind of forethought by people whose principal concern is not delivering a superior film, but rather milking the audience dry. The studios are force feeding it to consumers for the sole purpose of artificially inflating ticket prices and to theater chains that have no choice but to purchase very expensive projection equipment that could be antiquated before it's even paid for in full. And doing all of this during one of the worst economic stretches most of us have ever experienced only adds insult to injury.
Someone else who knows what they're doing with 3-D is DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. Having headed that studios' animation wing since its 1994 inception, Katzenberg made big news in 2008 by declaring that all future feature-length animated DreamWorks movies would be presented in 3-D. With the lone exception of the (2-D) "Road to Eldorado," all of DreamWorks 23 animated films have landed in the black with the six 3-D productions generating the highest percentage of profit. So, what does Katzenberg know that other studio chiefs don't? Not much really.
What Katzenberg (and John Lasseter of Pixar) realized early on is that 3-D is a perfect fit for animation. Because the visuals are drawn (either by hand or by computer) the images can be manipulated without limitation and look perfect all the time -- something live-action movies can never do. That's why "Avatar" looked so good. Yes, it used human actors doing motion-capture but the bulk of that films' visuals were created from scratch on equipment Cameron had designed specifically for that film. If Cameron had lavished the same kind of meticulous attention to his derivative, just so-so screenplay "Avatar" would have been a hands-down classic instead of what it is now: a technical marvel with a weak story.
There are huge issues facing the movie industry right now regarding 3-D, a couple with easy solutions, the others not so much.
The first thing the theaters chains need to do immediately is to stop overcharging audiences to see 3-D movies. If the live-action titles were as uniformly excellent as their animated counterparts, paying more for most people wouldn't be an issue, but they're not. Most of them are slapped together after the fact and not only do they look bad they frequently make viewers ill with motion sickness.
Number two: stop manipulating 2-D into 3-D, especially with years-old titles most fans of these films already own on DVD or Blu-ray. Cameron was an early conversion opponent but has since changed his tune. His next release is a 2-D to 3-D version of "Titanic." Other back-catalogue conversion titles coming out in 2012 include "Beauty & the Beast" and "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."
Studios and filmmakers also have to start being more selective about which movies they make that could significantly benefit from a 3-D presentation. In the case of "Hugo," the decision to go 3-D was a wise one on paper and it looks great and might even win some Oscars but it's also going to lose a boatload of money. This will also loosen the screws somewhat on the chains investing money they don't have on equipment with an iffy shelf life.
The studios also need to consider what's taking place outside the theaters. Not only do people have a practically endless supply of where they can spend their entertainment dollars they now have the option of watching 3-D in their own living rooms. While still too costly for most, 3-D home entertainment systems are going to continue to go down in price while the quality steadily rises. It wouldn't be going out on limb to predict that within the next five years, most US households will have 3-D systems. Add to that the industry's regular practice of releasing titles on DVD and (2-D and 3-D) Blu-ray mere months after the start of their theatrical runs and you're sinking your own ship before it even leaves the docks. Studios' impatience and insistence of cannibalizing their own productions is resulting in a more frugal, discerning and patient viewer.
The big question for movie fans that could fully embrace 3-D under the right conditions is also the one without a clear-cut answer. Considering how much money can be made -- and conversely how much can be lost -- why is it so hard to make a truly good-looking live-action 3-D movie? In order to do it right ("Hugo," "Avatar") you have to sink oodles of money into the budget and most studios just aren't willing to do so in this economic climate. They have to wait until human talent can line up the technology and based on history -- that could be a long, long time.
For those under the age of 30, this current 3-D wave is the first they've ever seen of the medium and like email, texting, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, consider it a new creation that's still crawling and just needs a little time to iron out the kinks. For those of us a tad older, we've seen the 3-D fad come and go before, some of us more than once.
If you don't think it's a fad, consider this: the technology for 3-D was invented in 1890 by British film pioneer William Freise-Greene. The first time an audience paid to see 3-D movie ("The Power of Love") in a theater occurred on September 27, 1922 using the anaglyphic image projection method. This is the process where rose and cyan color images are offset on the screen from two projectors and the 3-D appears while the viewer wears cardboard glasses with thin red and green plastic "lenses."
The anaglyphic presentation went through several fits and starts before "improvements" via the "natural vision" camera rig were made in the early 50s. Studios began releasing more movies, the majority of the titles being B-grade horror flicks and virtually all of them were 2-D to 3-D conversions. If 3-D was so great, why didn't studios and directors use it for their "prestige" titles? The closest 3-D ever got to respectability was when Alfred Hitchcock used natural vision (under studio pressure of course) for "Dial M for Murder." By the time the movie was released in 1954, it was shown in 2-D because the demand for 3-D was too low to warrant the additional distribution costs. It wasn't seen in 3-D until the '80s and then it was only at film festivals.
Every couple years, there would be an intermittent crush of titles and then another lull and by 1989 everyone regarded 3-D as officially dead.
The first indicator that 3-D may again be on its way out came last summer with the release of "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Cars 2" whose box-office takes from 3-D were only 45 and 37 percent respectively. That is a far cry from the 60 percent ratio enjoyed by "Shrek Forever After" just a year earlier.
This isn't an obituary or a proclamation or even a wish. I want 3-D to succeed in a big way. I hate to keep bringing up "Hugo" but it really is the only (mostly) live-action 3-D movie ever made to fully utilize this medium to its maximum potential.
This coming year will likely decide the future of 3-D. If one too many 3-D titles (pay close attention to "Prometheus" and "The Amazing Spider-man") fail to deliver big (or break-even) returns, more high-profile directors will abstain from making them and 3-D might not be able to dodge any more bullets.
Michael Clark is the movie reviewer for the Daily Post.