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Scott Mendelson

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Is 3D Dying or Just Leveling Off?

Posted: 06/ 3/2011 12:11 pm

The sky is not falling in the realm of 3D films.  There has been much hand-wringing over the last couple weeks as moviegoers have embraced their right to choose to see the latest summer tent-poles in 2D over the higher-priced 3D venues.  For the record, over the last two weekends, audiences purchased tickets to Kung Fu Panda 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in their respective 2D formats at a rate of 55/45.  So, despite those films playing in majority 3D theaters (around 65%), 3D ticket sales made up only 45% of the box office for their respective opening weekends.  This is not a new issue and it is not cause for panic or rebuttal.  Rather, it is a healthy sign that audiences are making an informed choice and that studios are offering a wide swath of moviegoers a genuine option when it comes to their 3D franchise pictures.

It's a bit of a pickle when it comes to 3D.  Arguably the films that use it best are the best films that happen to be in 3D.  Thus those films will work as well without 3D, negating the NEED to upgrade.  Over the last 7.5 years, there are really only two films that MUST be seen in 3D: The Polar Express and Coraline.  As I've written before, 3D is not a genre, but merely a tool.  Even Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, which use their 3D in the best ways possible, are such strong pictures that they look just as stunning and work just as well in 2D Blu-ray.  That leaves three other kinds of films that use 3D.  You have the cash-in conversions that all-but demand to be seen in 2D (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender), the films that are shot in 3D but look pretty terrible anyway (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Saw VII), and the genuine 3D party-flicks that may demand 3D viewings but arguably fall into the category of 'impulse purchase' (Step Up 3D, Piranha 3D, Drive Angry 3D).  And the last category, that arguably benefits the most from 3D, is where the pricing system is so problematic.

Even if we argue that The Final Destination benefited from its 3D effects two years ago (box office-wise, yes, quality-wise, no), it's arguably the kind of trashy genre fare that kids and college students decide to see as a group activity on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.  But how many younger audience members considered seeing Piranha 3D last August as a cheap little matin√©e excursion only to realize that there were no cheap tickets available?  Sure, getting together with your buds and heading off to a rowdy night of Drive Angry 3D sounds like a lot of fun, but is it really $20 a ticket fun?  Do you and your pals really want to blow $50 a pop on a cheap dinner, a movie ticket, and refreshments just to watch Piranha 3D?  It's an even more impossible equation when you're dealing with the category that arguably shows off 3D at its very best: big-budget animated features.  Even if my review specifically told you that the 3D work in Kung Fu Panda 2 is worth the 3D upcharge, are you still willing to fork out $80 so you, your spouse, and your two kids can enjoy a 90-minute movie?  And that's not even factoring popcorn and drinks, which are pretty tough to avoid if you're seeing a flick with young kids.  So even if I SWORE that the 3D in How to Train Your Dragon is jaw-droppingly beautiful, is it really worth it to fork over $80 for tickets when you can just go 2D and pay $40 for the same movie, or even less if you can take advantage of those early-bird matin√©es?

So it is, about 18 months after Avatar turned everyone into a 3D fanatic, the 'cool' factor is wearing off.  And this is to be expected, as audiences are realizing that most 3D isn't going to blow their minds and/or take them to another world of immersion.  Factor that in with big ticket-upcharges for the format, and it is no wonder that moviegoers are deciding that they can live with 2D if they are given the option.  And this isn't a new phenomenon either.  Even as far back as last July, Despicable Me grossed just 45% of its $56 million opening weekend on 3D screens.  Yes, when smaller studios released smaller movies (Piranha 3D, Saw VII) in almost exclusively 3D auditoriums, the statistics should that audiences chose 3D about 90% of the time.  But when the bigger studios offered audiences a genuine choice between 2D and 3D, those audiences basically went 50/50 for the higher-priced 3D tickets over opening weekend.  And THAT, is a good and healthy thing.

The worst thing the studios could do right now is panic and limit the number of 2D theaters for their upcoming tent-pole pictures.  Yes, when it comes to some of the BIG pictures (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II), the want-to-see factor is large enough that moviegoers may just hold their nose and pay the up-charge if their are no 2D options available.  But what of riskier projects like Green Lantern or Captain America?  To a general moviegoer, especially one displeased by 3D, having a 2D option may mean the difference between seeing it in theaters and waiting for DVD.  This all goes back to what I've been saying for nearly two years.  Studios can charge as much as they want for 3D, IMAX, Smell-O-Vision, whatever... as long as audiences have convenient access to a traditional 2D theatrical exhibition of said movie.  If we lose that, theatrical moviegoing as we know it will end.  3D isn't crashing and burning, but rather leveling off to become something that is offered as an alternate viewing mode for those who make the choice.

Moviegoers are indeed making concrete choices between 2D and 3D because studios are indeed offering them the option.  Sure, offering a 50/50 split of 2D and 3D screens may cost the studios that $3-5 upcharge when X-number of consumers go the cheaper 2D route.  But punishing those moviegoers by making it a zero-sum game will very likely cost the studios the entire $10-15 ticket price from those audience members (casual moviegoers, large families, those unable to see 3D properly, etc) unwilling or unable to go the 3D route.  That studios are offering ample 2D options for their 3D tent-poles is encouraging and healthy for the longterm survival of both the 3D format and theatrical moviegoing in general.  That audiences are making their own informed choices should be celebrated and not condemned.   Because 50% of the audience choosing the higher-priced 3D tickets is surely better than a majority of moviegoers not buying any theatrical tickets at all.                

 

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