3-D Was Supposed to Be the Future of Porn—What Happened?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 14 2014 8:22 AM

The Failed Promise of 3-D Porn

There are some things we don’t want to see flying at us.

Nurse 3D
Paz de la Huerta stars inNurse 3D.

Photo courtesy Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

Something is amiss at the Oscars of porn. More than 100 awards were given out at this year’s show, held in mid-January at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, including those for Movie of the Year, Best Comedy, and Best MILF Release. But careful viewers might have caught a snub that went unnoticed in the adult press. For all its cheerful inclusivity—the show celebrated even more obscure achievements, such as Clever Title of the Year (Cirque du Hole-A)—one genre was left out in the cold. The 31st annual AVN Awards had no “Woody” for 3-D porn.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

This marks a major shift in porn, if not for 3-D as a whole. It wasn’t so long ago that insiders believed the new technology would be the savior of an industry under siege from free competitors online. The optimism had its start in early 2009: With Avatar on its way to making billions, the San Fernando Valley mobilized for hard-core depth-sploitation. The director of Caligula—the notorious erotic film from 1979—said he was working on a 3-D sequel. One producer started selling stereo-pornography in a package deal with brand-new 3-D TVs, and another started shooting interactive 3-D scenes for viewing on your home computer. (Even Quentin Tarantino had talked of making 3-D porn.) Then in September 2010, Hustler put out its own big-budget, extra-blue version of Avatar—a sexed-up adaptation with naked Na’vi called This Ain’t Avatar XXX 3D.

Also in September, AVN announced a brand-new category for its awards show: Best 3D Release. “Adult movie production may never be the same again,” wrote adult-industry reporter and erotic 3-D photographer Mark Kernes. The Avatar parody received the first of those awards in January 2011, and a follow-up by the same director, This Ain’t Ghostbusters XXX 3D, won the 3-D prize in 2012. By 2013, though, Best 3D Release had been relegated to the list of additional awards given out on a different day, like the technical achievements at the real Oscars. (“If you even make a 3-D film, you’ll get nominated,” Kernes told me at the time.) By this year’s ceremony, the prize had vanished altogether.

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“The main problem is there aren’t a lot of 3-D TVs out there. That’s the biggest hold-back,” Kernes argues. But there are other problems, too. For one thing, the studios had convinced themselves that 3-D DVDs could not be ripped and spread online. Having lost half its business to freebie websites since 2005, executives sought safe harbor in a new video format. But content pirates were not deterred. “The way it was sold to me is that you can’t torrent a 3-D movie,” says porn journalist Gram Ponante, “and of course that’s not true.” Shooting on This Ain’t Avatar took a full week, more than twice the time it takes to shoot most conventional sex films, but the movie sold just 6,000 units, Ponante says, barely enough to make back its production costs. (Ten years ago, the best-selling porn films would sell about 60,000.)

The same occurred in mainstream soft-core. In 2010 Piranha 3D made a $60 million profit on topless ultra-gore and a dismembered penis flying off the screen. The sequel, Piranha 3DD, was released in 2012 and grossed just $375,000 in the U.S. An erotic import from China, 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, got lots of credulous press in 2011 for being the “world’s first ever 3-D porn film” (it wasn’t), but failed to sell that many tickets. And last week saw the release in theaters and streaming video of the latest tent-pole 3-D smut: Nurse 3D, the story of a man-killing, girl-kissing, clothes-not-wearing serial killer whose exploits are somehow neither sexy nor fun.

Why is 3-D porn so unloved? The format has long been embraced by films that traffic in sensation, and are more or less indifferent to character or plot. (“Thrills, chills, a lot of dirt,” to steal a slogan from a 3-D horror classic.) Yet what success it’s had hasn’t been so dirty. Data from the MPAA suggest that moviegoers under 25 see twice as many 3-D movies as the rest of us, a fact that seems self-evident when you look at what’s been made and what’s now in production. Most 3-D films are geared toward brains that haven’t yet developed: popcorn action pics (e.g., Need for Speed and Godzilla) and kiddie fare (e.g., Rio 2 and Legends of Oz). Thrills, chills, and some animated parrots.