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.

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Consumers have started to abandon 3-D movies—that much is certain. But their indifference seems not to be on account of the medium itself.

4. Hack filmmakers.

Film directors and screenwriters are the final suspects in the death of 3-D. A run of bad movies—poorly-scripted, badly-acted, crudely done—could have damaged the brand beyond repair. (A stinker is a stinker in any dimension. No one pays a surcharge for a lipsticked pig.) If this year's crop of 3-D movies were of lower quality than those from last year or the year before, consumers might have learned a lesson: Don't bother.

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Data from RottenTomatoes.com suggest that 3-D movies are indeed getting worse. "Tomatometer" scores for recent 3-D movies have been all over the place, from Toy Story 3 and Harry Potter (which rated at 100 percent among leading critics) to The Final Destination and Shark Night 3-D (which scored a 0from same). Amid all the noise, though, the numbers show a clear, downward tilt. More than two dozen major 3-D films were released between 2004 and the end of last summer, earning an average Tomatometer score of 57 percent. Among the 32 movies that have been released since, those ratings have dropped to an average of 41 percent.

The bad-movie theory jibes with research on what might have killed off the first wave of 3-D movies in the 1950s. In an essay for Film History titled "The Tragedyof 3-D Cinema,"(subscription required)historian Rick Mitchell goes through the possible causes of death from 60 years ago. The two most popular explanations, he says, are that consumers grew frustrated with the bulky glasses—especially the early models that were made of cheap cardboard—and that out-of-sync projections gave audience-members headaches and nausea.

Mitchell's not so sure. From 1952 to 1954, the major studios experimented with 3-D musicals, 3-D comedies, 3-D dramas, 3-D science fiction, and 3-D westerns, he says. They tried every different approach they could think of, but their films had one thing in common: They sucked. The fad got its start around Thanksgiving of 1952 with the audience-pleasing adventure film Bwana Devil—a sort of Avatar of its day—and a gold rush soon followed. Movies that had been planned for 2-D, or even half-made, were quickly updated and re-shot on the cheap. While some high-end films did get produced in stereo, they arrived late to a party that was already crowded with losers like Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon.

The same may have happened in the last few years. For every brilliant 3-D feature like Toy Story 3 or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we've seen half a dozen dopey kids' movies, a handful of violent horror pics, and a few superhero retreads. The same could be said of flat movies, of course, but that's exactly the point: If 3-D films are just as bad as everything else that comes out of Hollywood, then they aren't worth a ticket premium at any price.

What happened to 3-D? It may have died from a case of acute septicemia—too much crap in the system.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2011: This article originally called the subtitle of the Transformers movie Dark Side of the Moon.