'Pirates of the Caribbean's' Low 3D Numbers in U.S. Could Be Wake-Up Call to Hollywood

7:19 PM PST 05/24/2011 by Pamela McClintock
Disney Enterprises
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

This summer will put 3D to the test, with some saying America’s appetite is waning because of the extra cost of a ticket.

Is the summer box office turning out to be a high-stakes showdown over 3D?

This week, debate erupted across Hollywood over the fact that a majority of moviegoers in North America chose to see Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on conventional screens and not shell out the extra money for a 3D ticket.

That's a first for a major studio tentpole. Usually, 55% to 65% of a film's opening weekend gross at the domestic box office comes from 3D screens. For Pirates, just 47% saw it in 3D.

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Some say Pirates is nothing short of a wake-up call and that the appetite for 3D is waning in the U.S. because of the extra cost of a 3D ticket. But others insist that's not the case. One point everyone agrees on -- more and more, companies must market the 3D aspect when plugging a movie.

Overseas, it's a different story. The appetite for 3D is virtually insatiable in such territories as Russia, China and Brazil. That's a big reason why the fourth Pirates film scored the biggest international opening of all time at $260.4 million.

Fueled by its foreign performance, Stranger Tides is expected to jump the $400 million mark at the worldwide box office on Wednesday, less than a week into its release. In the U.S., Stranger Tides opened to a perfectly respectable $90.1 million, although Disney would have liked to hit $100 million.

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By its own admission, Disney didn't heavily promote the fact that Stranger Tides was in 3D.

Paramount is taking the opposite approach with Michael Bay's summer tentpole Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which like Stranger Tides is the first title in its franchise to be in 3D. Last week, Paramount partnered with THR to host a conversation between Bay and James Cameron, considered the godfather of modern-day 3D.

At the event, Paramount showed 18 minutes of footage from Transformers. Two days later, a 3D trailer of Transformers, which bows July 1, went out with Stranger Tides.

"Inside the U.S., people need to be convinced why they should see a movie in 3D," one Paramount executive said.

Likewise, Warner Bros. is touting the 3D element in promoting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, saying that fans of the franchise should "complete the journey in 3D." Unlike Transformers or Stranger Tides, Deathly Hallows wasn't shot in 3D but converted after the fact.

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The summer is full of other 3D titles, including Kung Fu Panda 2, which opens Thursday; Green Lantern; Captain America: The First Avenger; and The Smurfs.

"Because one movie didn't live up to expectations, it's too early to announce the demise of 3D. It just doesn't make sense," another studio executive cautioned. "If a pattern develops, then you say there's been an adjustment."

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