Four theories on the death of 3-D.

The state of the universe.
Sept. 15 2011 7:19 AM

Who Killed 3-D?

A box-office whodunit.

(Continued from Page 1)

There has indeed been a noticeable decline in 3-D ratios following the nationwide price hikes in early 2010. If you look at the 10 3-D movies that were released before the gouging, and compare them to the 10 3-D movies that were released right after, the average revenue bonus for fancy screenings declined from 76 percent to 27 percent.

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But that one-time jump in ticket premiums doesn't explain why the format continued its slide over the months that followed. While the cost of going to see a 3-D movie stabilized (or returned to its steady upward creep), the next 10 movies to be released earned an average return of minus-3 percent from their 3-D screenings, and the 10that came after that yielded minus-52 percent. It's also clear that the numbers were spiraling downward long before the theater chains succumbed to their greed. (The graph above uses the same 3-D vs. 2-D data as before, expressed as percentages and averaged across consecutive groups of five movies from 2007 to the present.)

PricewaterhouseCoopers argues that 3-D might be sustained—or brought back to life—if the theater chains could limit the ticket premium to a couple of dollars. But the data suggest that something else might be to blame.

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2. Greedy film studios.

If you ask the medium's most dedicated evangelists what's wrong with 3-D, they'll point to the shoddy, post-production upgrades that flooded the market after Avatar. "It was just being applied liked a layer, purely for profit motive," said James Cameron, who rates the quality of 3-D in dimensional fractions, 2.2-D or 2.5-D. According to this theory, high-end, "real" 3-D sells itself, while the crappy, cash-in conversions—the "fake" 3-D—destroys the brand.

Again, there's some supporting evidence. Using information gleaned from RealOrFake3D.com, it's possible to compare box-office numbers from converted and native 3-D films: Since 2010, "real" films have an average ratio of 1.00, meaning they earn about the same amount from 3-D and 2-D on a per-theater basis. The "fake" films from that period had an average ratio of 0.87, which equates to minus-13 percent. It's also the case that fakeness is on the rise—it now accounts for about half of all 3-D releases—which could explain the general worsening of 3-D returns.

The data are hard to interpret, though. It's not clear whether animated films, which make up the plurality of 3-D releases, should count as real or fake. (The conversion process applies only to live-action footage.) Plenty of others on the list of 3-D films are partially animated, and at least a few—like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Cave of Forgotten Dreams—employ a mix of natural and converted elements. The quality of live-action 3-D footage also varies, of course, so the effects in one film might be real-but-lousy, while those in another are fake-but-pretty-good.  

If the conversion-happy studios are complicit in the death of 3-D, there isn't yet enough evidence to convict them.

3. Shrewd consumers.

What about the audience—could film-goers have murdered 3-D with indifference? Their motive would be easy enough to suss out: The format is little more than a headache-inducing gimmick, goes the argument, that leaves the image murky, distorted and degraded. Or worse, it does nothing at all: Up to 10 percent of the population is anatomically incapable of seeing 3-D effects.

While the early movies in the 3-D revival relied on outrageous stunts—pickaxes flying off the screen and all that—recent films have tended to use the technology for atmosphere, rarely breaking out of the stereo window. Restraint carries its own risks, however. In June, A. O. Scott called this "one of the pitfalls of that format, which is that if the 3-D is unobtrusive enough that you don't really notice it, you may as well foregothe disposable glasses and the surcharge that comes with them." The vice-chairman of Paramount summed up the case when he told the Times that consumers are "tired of sitting in a theater thinking, 'Wait is this movie in 3-D or not?'"

It's a damned-if-you-do problem: 3-D effects are either too blatant or too subtle, a novelty or a trifle. (A related theory holds that stereoscopy works for certain genres—animated children's movies, for example—but adds nothing otherwise.) All of which may have led film-goers to agree with Roger Ebert that there's no value to 3-D whatsoever. At best, it caters to the mall crowd, or the markets overseas that lap up our most embarrassing exports.

So how bad is 3-D on its own terms? Critics are mixed. Slate counted up favorable and unfavorable mentions in 128 reviews published in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and the Hollywood Reporter, covering 43 recent 3-D movies. A bit more than half the reviews made no mention of 3-D at all, or else they mentioned it only in passing and without judgment. About 28 percent came out against the technology, declaring it a needless distraction or worse. The remaining 21 percent lauded the use of 3-D as a worthy add-on, skillfully employed.

Which is to say that the critics are by no means unanimous in their condemnation of the new-fangled format; sometimes they see it as a boon. Nor does the quality of 3-D appear to influence its rate of return. Everyone loved the stereoscopy in Avatar, and consumers flocked to premium-priced screenings. Yet the 3-D effects in the latest installments of Kung Fu Panda, Transformers, and Harry Potter also received high marks—while their 3-D numbers approached historic lows.

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