Thursday, August 28, 2014

5 Years Down the Line: Taking Stock of 3D Cinema and its Future

When Avatar first broke 3D cinema into the mainstream, everyone wanted to know whether this was a gimmick or a game-changer. But only now do we actually have some hard data to really asses the future of 3D movies. 
 by Adriaan Odendaal

The ‘future of 3D cinema’ debate has been going on since Avatar first debuted in 2009 to become the highest grossing film in history. It was largely due to the novelty of 3D projection that this happened, as over 70% of its intake came from 3D screenings. 5 years down the line now, with 3D projection still very much part of regular cinema circuits, can we finally establish stereoscopic 3D as an indivisible part of modern cinema, or do box-office statistics show a different picture?

Where we come from

The irony of this whole debate is, as always, that 3D movies are as old as the cinema itself (if you want to watch some pretty cool early experiments in 3D, click here). The first commercial 3D film ever shown was The Power of Love in 1922 already. It was only in the 1950s, however, that a golden era of commercial 3D films dawned with movies like Man in Dark and House of Wax. Everyone loved 3D, for a while.

3D cinema in the 1950s was pushed by studios to combat the rise of television and its infringement on box office takings. By all accounts, it was a gimmick used to re-establish cinema as a unique viewing experience. In this sense, contemporary 3D cinema has a very strong contextual resemblance to its 1950s incarnation, with home theatres, film piracy, and Blu-rays drawing viewers away from today’s cinema screens.

It was the birth of widescreen-cinema that eventually pushed 3D projection out as it offered studios a cheaper way to turn ‘the pictures’ into a spectacular experience once again. Yet 3D projection never completely died. From the mid-50s onwards, 3D projection was relegated to B-horror movies like Friday the 13th Part III and Amityville (as well as demeaning theme-park shows). The recent comeback of 3D was more gradual than many may realise. In the 2000s there were numerous mainstream films like Beowulf, The Polar Express, and The Final Destination already being projected in 3D, long before Avatar came along. What made Avatar exceptional, however, was that its unprecedented success meant 3D cinema could potentially and completely supplant 2D projection for the first time ever.

Where we are now

Hollywood is a business, and the longevity of any of its devices is predicated by potential earnings. The most accurate way to consequently take stock of the current state, and future, of 3D is to look at the market response to this format since Avatar’s unprecedented success 5 years ago.

Slate reported that while 3D movies did exorbitantly well between 2009 and 2010, takings (in relation to 2D projections of the same films) have been in decline ever since. The 3D versions of movies such as Clash of the Titans and How to Train Your Dragon more than tripled their 2D versions’ intake in 2010. But then Toy Story 3 came along in the same year and for the first time since Avatar, 3D ticket sales dropped below that of the film’s 2D version (even though Toy Story 3 cumulatively raked in a whopping $110 million).

In 2010 to 2011 revenue from 3D movies dropped even more, while Hollywood’s output of 3D films doubled. Then in 2012 there was a record low for animated features projected in this format with the 3D version of Brave only accounting for 32% of its takings. Since then, most films (such as Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: Winter Soldier) have seen significantly less money come in from their 3D than their 2D projected versions. Overall then, there seems to be a significant downwards trend that doesn’t bode too well for the future of 3D.

However, it should be noted that all the downwards trending data above are from American domestic screenings, consequently painting a rather reductive picture of a truly global industry. According to Hollywood Reporter, while the USA saw a rapid decline in 3D ticket sales, in 2012 3D was still booming in Brazilian, Russian, and Chinese markets (this last one becoming a very influential market for Hollywood). Also, according to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), while only 41% of American screens are 3D, Asia-Pacific and Latin America boast 60% 3D screens, and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa have around 53%. And these numbers seem to be steadily rising as Hollywood looks more and more towards international markets to supplement a general decrease in domestic ticket sales.

Where we are going

Substantiating the data above, Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson argues that

 in today’s marketplace, where a big-budget film’s financial fate is often decided by overseas dollars, it’s almost fiscal self-injury not to make the call. For anywhere from $10 million to $20 million extra, you can add around 15 to 20 percent to your opening weekend grosses… For numbers like that, why wouldn’t you convert your purely commercial popcorn genre film to 3-D? 

Big studios are still profiting from 3D overseas, even though it is now much less than from 2D. As long as there is a profit, Hollywood won’t decide to stop doing it. Consequently, it can be assumed that 3D will likely remain a steadfast part of the industry, as it has always been, but will probably not succeed in supplanting 2D cinema as many predicted in the wake of the Avatar boom.

Yet this is not all that can be said for the future of this format. There are movies that still do exorbitantly well in 3D, and studios do take note of these. “If 3-D is used in a gimmicky way,” says John Fragomeni who runs a production company alongside Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro, “it often triggers a negative viewer and critical response”. Likewise, the inverse of this statement is also true: if 3D is used in a way that emphasises its filmic value, it triggers a positive viewer and critical (not to mention financial) response.

It is 3D projection of films like Tron, Hugo, and Life of Pie that still outperform their 2D counterparts, specifically because they implement this ‘gimmick’ in such a way that it enhances the viewing experience. These become movies that ‘you have to see in 3D if you are going to see it’.

In an interview Avatar director James Cameron had with Martin Scorsese about his film Hugo, Cameron stated: “I mean, of course it's a lead story that a filmmaker of Marty's stature and pedigree is working in 3D. Because it's sort of breaking down this idea that 3D is for just hyper-commercial films”. Scorsese also tells Cameron: “I found that the setting of the story lent itself to using the element of space and depth. It had a lot to do with the machinery of 3D, which creates something beyond itself”. If masters of modern cinema such as Scorsese (who is also a respected film-historian, by the way), see real filmic value in this ‘gimmick’, then there is clearly a future for 3D beyond the supplementation of international ticket sales, as Mendelson suggested.

The best example of the inherent potential of 3D cinema is the 2013 box-office hit, and Academy Award winning film, Gravity. This film proved in more than one way that despite the downwards trend 3D movies seem to follow, 3D versions can still potentially outperform their 2D counterparts when done right. More than 80% of audiences watched Gravity in 3D, making it a bigger victory for the future of this format than even Avatar was.

Namit Malhotra, founder and CEO of the company that did Gravity’s 3D conversion said:

 One of the things that is great about Gravity is that Alfonso embraced 3-D as a full-fledged storytelling tool… Not only did [Cuarón] want to ensure that the 3-D was an integrated and value-added aspect to his film, he decided at the beginning to make it so. This approach allowed 3-D to be a supporting element and enabler of the outstanding story. And what’s great is [that] audiences are validating that decision.

Helmsman of the 3D-revival James Cameron succinctly said: “we don’t want to pay extra for something that’s not a great experience”. This is fundamentally why most movies have bombed in 3D once the post-Avatar novelty of the format had worn off. Yet, as Mendelson suggested, there is still enough money to be made in international markets to support the longevity of mainstream 3D. While we have thus not seen the last of gratuitous and gimmicky stereoscopics, revered filmmakers like Scorsese, Cameron, Ang Lee, and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón have secured a niche for 3D movies that do actually promise ‘great experiences’ in the future.