— Are you fed up with 3-D movies? Sick of paying extra to wear glasses (or an additional pair of glasses) to watch a film? Tired of movies that are too dark, or were obviously post-converted to 3-D, resulting in a headache-inducing mess?
The numbers say you’re not alone: Opening-weekend tallies for two major 3-D releases, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Kung Fu Panda 2,” suggest that American moviegoers are turning away from 3-D in record numbers and seeking out the 2-D versions instead. A year ago, the fourth “Shrek” movie saw 60 percent of its opening weekend coming from non-IMAX 3-D houses, as did 57 percent of the take for “How to Train Your Dragon”; by contrast, “Panda 2” took in just 45 percent from 3-D audiences, and “Pirates” a mere 38 percent.
While many viewers have complained about the added expense of 3-D for ticket-buyers — to say nothing of the wildly varying quality from film to film, with some being shot in 3-D and others hastily converted in post-production — film critic Roger Ebert has been on a fervent anti–3-D crusade in articles like “The Dying of the Light” (which recounted how 2-D movies played on 3-D digital projectors in neighborhood theaters often wind up looking way too dark) and the self-explanatory “Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too).”
“The theaters have been pressured into investing huge amounts in 3-D projection,” Ebert told me via e-mail. “There is beginning to be consumer resistance. The tragedy will be if we lose the brilliance and clarity of 2-D in the process.” Indeed, the sloppy multiplex projectionists who used to turn the bulbs down in their 35mm projectors to save a buck now often can’t be bothered to take the 3-D lenses out of a digital projector when screening a 2-D movie, resulting in a darker image.
But it’s not just true cinema enthusiasts who are turning away from the 3-D phenomenon. Studio bean-counters are starting to notice audience attrition, especially since it’s starting to affect the bottom line. Deadline.com recently cited a report from Wall Street analyst Richard Greenfield titled “The American Consumer is Rejecting 3-D; Will Hollywood Listen to Consumers vs. Forcing 3-D On Us?” which stated that the weak 3-D numbers for the opening weekend of “Panda 2” led to stock-market declines of both DreamWorks Animation and 3-D tech company RealD.
It’s premature to start reading eulogies for 3-D just yet, with highly-anticipated summer blockbusters like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Cars 2,” “Green Lantern,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” on the way. “Transformers” director Michael Bay, in fact, has been giving interviews about taking back his original vow to never make a 3-D movie after he saw what James Cameron had done with “Avatar."
And it’s Cameron and “Avatar,” let us not forget, that are the real parents of the current 3-D craze. Once “Avatar” became the highest-grossing movie of all time — beating out Cameron’s “Titanic,” which the director is currently converting to 3-D for a 2012 reissue — it was inevitable that other studios would jump aboard the bandwagon, particularly since audiences could be coerced into paying extra for 3-D. But for every “Avatar” or Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” — two acclaimed movies that Ebert says are “exceptions” when it comes to 3-D being used interestingly or even necessarily — audiences are forced to endure any number of duds like “The Nutcracker in 3-D” or “Clash of the Titans.”
With enough moviegoers still willing to shell out for 3-D, it’s hard to imagine that studios will be backing away from it anytime soon. 3-D even has its champions in the critical community.
“‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ makes great use of [3-D] to stage martial arts battles,” notes E! Online critic Luke Y. Thompson. “And ‘Avatar’ has a really unique subtle immersion to it, where it becomes a subconscious thing rather than an effect you're actually thinking about.”
Thompson points out that most complaints about 3-D could probably be fixed at the projection level: “I notice nobody ever seems to complain about the 3-D used in theme park rides, like ‘Terminator 2,’ ‘Shrek 4-D’ or ‘King Kong,’ presumably because the projection is perfect.” And as for the majority of critics who aren’t fans, he observes, “I think many of the critics who are haters would probably calm down if press screenings offered a choice of 3-D or 2-D: critics are literally the only people who are actually forced to watch 3-D, and it’s no surprise that some of them resent it.”
Ironically, what could hammer the final nail into 3-D’s coffin is the same force that 3-D currently exists to battle — the home theater. Hollywood studios in the 1950s introduced 3-D to get people to turn off their TVs and come back to the movies, and today’s 3-D revival has everything to do with competing against home theaters, Hulu and Netflix Instant. But as 3-D television technology improves and becomes cheaper, 3-D itself will cease to be a special experience that can be had only in a theater.
Stock analyst Greenfield may have the most valuable piece of advice for Hollywood moguls who thought 3-D was their key to avoiding a financial slump: “Focus on making consumer-desirable films rather than worrying about the technology.”