Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why 3D Will Bring Down Movies

3D will be the death of movies, if left unchecked. You wouldn't know it by current trends, which show 3D accounting for larger and larger profit margins for blockbusters like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. Therein, however, lies the problem. The current obsession with 3D as a miracle cure-all for shoddy filmmaking and otherwise lackluster ticket sales will ultimately kill real craftsmanship and creativity in mainstream movies.

The Return of 3D
At the end of the summer of 2009, 3D was but a gag, a jokey throwback to 1950s campiness, never to be taken seriously again. The Polar Express, Spy Kids 3D, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Monsters vs. Aliens, and a host of other films used the technology as an added bonus for moviegoers with modest success but always as an accessory to the films.

Then Avatar happened.

James Cameron's tour de force destroyed all previously held stigma regarding 3D with the general public. Avatar's runaway success became 3D's success. Keep in mind, 3D accounted for less of the movie's gross revenues than most people think- IMAX revenues, all in 3D, accounted for roughly 8 percent of the total. But the co-branding of Avatar with next gen 3D tech was enough to blend the public perception of the two into one. Avatar came to herald a new day for 3D.

In actuality, the film succeeded because of undeniable craftsmanship and universal appeal. A whopping 73 percent ($1.98 B) of the film's sales came from foreign markets where 3D and IMAX were in shorter supply. International audiences latched onto it because of its gorgeous images and anti-imperialist, anti-corporate messaging.

Regardless, Hollywood failed to equate a timeless story and meticulous craftsmanship with the $2-billion success. "It must have been because of the digital 3D," they agreed sagely and promptly started slapping 3D onto every major title possible.

3D Overkill
Since the success of Avatar, 3D is ubiquitous. It is a marketing tagline in and of itself.

Disney released Alice in Wonderland, which broke records of its own, thanks to higher ticket sales from those blasted glasses (they encourage you to give them back after the movie so they can "recycle" them- it's actually so they can resell them to another sucker for $4).

Dreamworks released How To Train Your Dragon, probably the only worthy 3D successor to Avatar so far.

Interestingly enough, Warner Bros.' Clash of Titans remake, which added 3D in post-production to capitalize on the 3D craze, actually suffered because of the "improvement." Audiences complained that watching the 3D was like watching the movie through a Viewmaster.

Now, in case you've missed pretty much every movie promotion in the last month, here are some of the cases of 3D infatuation:

Toy Story 3 – first teaser trailer featured characters stepping out of the screen, gawking at the 3D effect

The Last Airbender – after the latest trailer unreels, all alone on the screen is a big 3D.

Despicable Me – on every poster, just under the title, is the phrase "in eye-popping Real3D."

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore – on every poster, just under the title, is the phrase "unleashed in 3D."

Step Up 3D – basically what they're saying is now you can see Channing Tatum get his groove on in three dimensions.

Pirahna 3-D – tagline: "This summer 3D shows its teeth."

Resident Evil: Afterlife – tagline: "Experience a new dimension of evil."

Legend of the Guardians – tagline: "Take flight in 3D"

Jackass 3D – 'nuff said

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – "The Worldwide Phenomenon… the Motion Picture Event of a Generation… Presented in Two Parts… in 3D"

Voyage of the Dawn Treader – just under the title on the posters: "in digital 3D"

Tron: Legacy – just below the title on the posters: "in 3D Dec 2010"

Gulliver's Travels – just below the title on the poster: "in digital 3D Christmas"

In some of these cases, 3D stands in for any detail about the movie itself. It's almost as if the studio marketing departments would have us believe that story, character, and actual quality are secondary to some nifty 3D effects. They are going to find out the hard way that movies will always sell on quality.

Sensory Over Substance
I can see some moviegoers responding to these points with a big "so what?" After all, what harm does it do to make every major release 3D? Isn't it just another bonus for the moviegoer? And the movie studios need to make their money, right?

I'll tell you what the problem is. 3D is a gimmick, nothing more or less. In more positive terms, it is merely a tool of the filmmaker- just like sound, color, Smell-o-vision, CGI, music, and any other component of film. I understand that studios need a way to recoup the large investments they put into films.

The problem here is the cart-before-the-horse mentality this all entails. Follow the logic, if you will: "A 3D movie (Avatar) made a ton of cash. It must have been because of the 3D. Therefore, if we just add 3D to every film, they will make a ton of cash, too." This kind of thinking can only hurt the components that actually affect a film's success and audience satisfaction.

Rather than considering how they can deliver a solid story and a satisfying character arc, studios will be preoccupied with amping up the sensory experience. "Who needs storytelling when you can blow audiences out of their seats with three-dimensional explosions and charge a premium for it?"

3D is just the beginning of this movement. Millions are being pumped into other ways to amp up the sensory experience- and charge more for it. A friend of mine recently participated in a field test of a new theater chair that rumbles, shakes, and swivels along with the action on screen. Theaters plan to charge $16 and up for these seats. Add 3D glasses to that and pushing into the twenties. And somewhere, studio execs are slobbering all over their martinis anticipating this.

I can just see the movie posters in a year: "One man will face the world… in digital 3D… in a shaking chair… and did we mention it's in 3D?"

The gimmicks that come and go are distractions from what really matters about movies- the things that really leave you satisfied when you leave the theater. True, some filmmakers will still deliver great stories. Others will have to fight the studios to get them to look beyond their newest toys. Needless to say, good movies will get harder to find.


  1. I have to agree, if the movie can't be touching, unique or engaging in a dollar theater (or a 15" laptop screen) the movie didn't have much going for it in the first place. The more gimmicks we add to a theater experience, the more directors/producers/studios will focus on catering to those gimmicks, instead of just giving us a great story. I think 3D has a place, but the more that we focus on the gimmick, instead of the story, the more Captain Io we'll get in the end.

  2. I can not help but think when color movies came out the same things were said. I understand bad movies are made but given the fact that you can point to 3 good movies in 3d (avatar, how to train your dragon, and toy story 3) tells me that the % of good movies has stayed about the same. Maybe I am just too critical of the modern movies but I think experience over substance has been happening for quite some time. 3D just makes it more obvious.


Join the conversation! I'm always interested in hearing what visitors have to say.