Cannes 2012: 3D Comes Into Sharper Focus

Dracula 3D H 2012

With its novelty beginning to wear thin, distributors are hoping a more discerning use of the once red-hot format will lead to renewed interest (and even the art house is chipping in).

The 3D goldrush is over. The box office tsunami that was James Cameron’s Avatar set producers and sales agents scrambling to stuff their slates with anything 3D, hoping to ride the wave. But while there have been plenty of indie 3D hits — from Relativity Media’s Immortals to the sleeper success of Wim Wenders’ dance documentary Pina — the new format has not proved a guarantee of global sales and box office success.

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Despite the format’s troubles, 2011 marked another record year for 3D, with total box office revenue from 3D movies hitting $6.9 billion, an 18 percent jump, according to provisional figures from Screen Digest.

But in North America, still the largest 3D market, revenue actually was down, to $1.9 billion from $2.1 billion in 2010. While part of that drop was Avatar-related — no 3D release has come close to the take of Cameron’s record-breaking blockbuster — there are also clear signs of 3D fatigue.

“While 3D definitely isn’t going away, the audience is becoming a lot more selective,” says Screen Digest senior analyst Charlotte Jones, who points out that in North America, the 3D/2D split — the percentage of box office a 3D title generates from 3D screens  — was down to 56 percent last year, after garnering 66 percent in 2010 and a whopping 70 percent back in 2008.

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“That a film is available in 3D is, by itself, not a sufficient argument to convince audiences to see it in that format,” Jones says. “But the studios are becoming more selective in what they release in 3D and audiences are reacting well. For the first quarter of this year, the 3D/2D split was back up to 69 percent.”

There are still plenty of 3D titles cramming the halls of Cannes’ Marche du Film. The Weinstein Company has Escape from Planet Earth, a 3D animation film featuring the voice talent of Jessica Alba and Brendan Frasier, as well as the horror parody Piranha 3DD; IM Global has Dredd, its 3D reboot of the sci-fi franchise with Karl Urban reprising the role of the vengeful titular judge played by Sylvester Stallone in the 1995 original as well as Walking with Dinosaurs, an $80 million, 3D family animation title which Fox will bow in the U.S. and several international territories; Summit is shopping around Step Up Revolution, the fourth in its successful 3D dance franchise; Nu Image/Millennium has Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D while Aldamisa International is looking to entice buyers to Robert RodriguezSin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, the 3D sequel to the noir drama that premiered in Cannes back in 2005.

In Cannes’ official selection, there are 3D films ranging from the DreamWorks Animation tentpole Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted; to Patrice Leconte’s The Suicide Shop, a Cannes Junior entry for which Wild Bunch is handling sales and Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, which has a special screening slot and is being sold at the market by The Little Film Company.

But perhaps more telling is what isn’t in 3D. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Io e Te (Me and You) was supposed to be the first foray into 3D by the great Italian auteur, before Bertolucci abandoned the idea (and dismissed 3D as prohibitively “expensive and vulgarly commercial”). Slasher re-boot Maniac from Piranha 3D helmer Alexandre Aja, a midnight screening title which Wild Bunch is selling, was not shot in the new format. And Sierra/Affinity’s Ender’s Game, the sci-fi epic starring Asa Butterfield of Hugo and one of the biggest sellers in Cannes last year, is currently shooting in good old 2D.

“Actually, I spent a lot of my time in the past few years discouraging filmmakers from making their movies in 3D,” says Caroline Stern, director of international sales and acquisitions at Kaleidoscope. “3D is costly and it doesn’t necessarily have a value. There has to be a reason to shoot in 3D.”

For The Penguin King 3D, Kaleidoscope’s flagship title at this year’s Cannes market, the reason seems obvious. The documentary, which in its U.K. version is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, uses stunning 3D cinematography to follow the journey of an emperor penguin from adolescence to fatherhood.

“In the case of this particular title, there’s that point of difference. Here we are exploring new landscapes and that’s the reason for using the third dimension,” says Stern. “Production-wise, Penguin King can compete at a studio level with other 3D titles and, in fact, we are looking at studio-level distribution in many territories.”

Wildlife documentaries seem to be one genre that is benefiting from 3D, particularly as 3D cameras and rigs get smaller and lighter, allowing documentary filmmakers to get places they could never have gone before.

Dolphin: A 3D Adventure, which The Salt Company is pre-selling in Cannes, will make use of specially-developed underwater rigs to, for the first time, swim with dolphins in 3D.

“Up till now, the problem with wildlife documentaries in 3D was that the cameras were so big, they tended to be very static,” says Salt managing director Samantha Horley. “Underwater, you had a problem with drag. By the time you’d get the camera in place, the dolphins would be bloody gone.”

Salt is also pre-selling the 3-D drama Twist in Cannes. The modern-day update on Oliver Twist has Oliver and his gang of thieves using the vertigo-inducing street sport of Parkour to perform heists and evade the police.

“If you look at the success of films like Wim Wenders’ Pina, it totally proves there is a market for indie product in 3D,” Horley says, “But you have to create an event that audiences are willing to pay a premium for.”

So far, Pina, which grossed $14.6 million worldwide, is the only example of a 3D art-house hit. All the other 3D indie success stories have been variations on studio-style spectacle, whether its Constantin Film’s sci-fi blockbuster Resident Evil: Afterlife, Dimension Films’ family adventure Spy Kids 4D or the never-ending slew of 3D horror titles, from Saw 3D to Piranha 3D to Shark Night 3D.

But while Bertolucci may have ditched the format, a handful of auteurs are trying to make art house movies in three dimensions. Measuring The World in 3D from German helmer Detlev Buck, which The Match Factory is selling in Cannes, is an adaptation of the worldwide bestseller from Daniel Kehlmann featuring David Kross (The Reader) and Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters). A period drama about two very different 19th century geniuses — Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humbolt — it is looking to becoming the first 3D art house cross-over film.

But when it comes to 3D art house, Wenders remains the pioneer. The German director is currently shooting Everything Will Be Fine, a 3D drama which HanWay is selling worldwide and which is slated to deliver by the end of the year, likely for a Berlin Film Festival premiere. Wenders is also doing a major 3D TV documentary series on architecture — called Cathedrals of Culture — for French/German broadcaster ARTE.  

“The use of 3D up to now has been, creatively speaking, very rudimentary and superficial — it’s been used to create spectacle, not art,” says Erwin M. Schmidt, a producer at Wenders’ production company Neue Road Movies who worked on Pina. “We hope our new film will encourage art house directors to break free of the 3D clichés and open up this format to a much broader range of films and filmmakers.”