Titanic wasn’t quite king of the world in its first weekend on big screens after a 15-year hiatus. The 1997 movie placed third at the box office, earning $17.3 million—just shy of the $18 million it cost to convert the film to 3D.
Which raises a question: Were those conversion costs necessary? Why didn’t James Cameron and company just re-release the massively successful film in its original two-dimensional glory? Surely, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic—and the 15th anniversary of the film—provide excuse enough. But movie studios, which once re-released their big hits with some regularity, have more or less ceased doing so, even as more costly 3D re-releases have become more common. How come they don’t put 2D classics back in theaters anymore?
The simple answer, of course, is that the wide availability of old movies on DVD, cable, Netflix, and so on has made the practice obsolete. And yet many popular movies that have returned more or less untouched to theaters in the last 20 years have done quite well at the box office. And conversations with those involved with 3D re-releases suggest that Hollywood executives are simply too focused on producing and marketing new movies—or, increasingly, revamping old ones—to consider reviving this bygone feature of the big-studio business model. (And this despite the avowed preference on the part of some Hollywood executives for 2D movies.)
Hollywood will re-release at least four 2D hits in 3D in 2012: Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Titanic, and Finding Nemo. Such conversions are becoming common enough that a handful of sizable companies have sprung up specializing in the process; these companies take on the costs of conversion for a share of the back end. Titanic’s 3D conversion cost $18 million, and such costs are coming down with technological advances. Still, that’s a hefty production price to pay on movies that were already popular in their original form—especially given the past success of un-converted re-releases.
Consider Star Wars: According to Box Office Mojo, the 1997 re-releases of the original trilogy generated $138.3 million, $67.6 million, and $45.5 million, respectively—not to mention the $2 billion marketing deal with PepsiCo and all the promotional book and toy revenue. Lucas reportedly spent $10 million to “rework” the first installment, from 1977, and $2.5 million each on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
And that’s hardly the only successful example from recent years. The 20th-anniversary re-release of E.T. raked in $35.3 million on 3,000 screens. Gone with the Wind made $6.8 million on only 214 screens in 1998—which was the eighth re-release in the film’s history. (The seventh had come just nine years before.) That same year, Grease made $28.4 million and was, for one weekend, the No. 2 movie in America, while The Wizard of Oz made $14.8 million. (Both of those films were shown on roughly 2,000 screens nationwide.)
In the 1980s, Disney re-released several of its movies, earning eight-figure revenues from The Sword in the Stone in 1983, The Aristocats in 1987, and Cinderella in 1981 and 1987. Bambi came back to theaters in 1975, 1982, and 1988, and grossed more than $20 million each time around the block. (It’s no surprise, then, that Disney is going big on the 3D-rerelease trend.)
In the age of widescreen, high-def TVs, with old classics more accessible to audiences than ever before, studios have apparently become convinced that such profits hinge on a special director’s cut or, more likely, newly added 3D effects.
Or they may have simply not thought that much about it. “Every studio has gone through their library and considered what films they can redo in 3D,” one executive told us. “I don’t think anyone’s really considering just re-releasing films, though. I mean, we’re movie studios. We’re in the business to make new films.”