The Report: On the 3D Learning Curve

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Big Picture: Fox will 
unwrap 3D Gulliver’s Travels for Christmas.

The year delivers three big conclusions

To 3D or not to 3D — that’s the question Hollywood has been debating this year.

After Avatar mounted a record-breaking 
$2.8 billion assault on the global box office, the gold rush was on. But then 3D lost some of its lustre: Warner Bros., hoping to cash in, took Clash of the Titans, shot in 2D, and converted it into a 3D release that opened to a buzz saw of criticism. And given a choice, family audiences appeared to prefer watching a movie like the animated Despicable Me at 2D theaters.

Still, Hollywood remains bullish on the third dimension. Six of 2010’s top 10 domestic grossers to date have been released in 3D.

Megamind fell just 37 percent during its second weekend — proof that when 3D movies click, they settle in for stronger-than-average box-office runs. Gulliver’s Travels, Tron: Legacy and Yogi Bear are among a half-dozen 3D titles set to unspool by year’s end, and at least 17 3D releases are set for 2011.

So what has the first wave of the new generation of 3D movies taught Hollywood?

First, quality matters. Clash, though it went on to collect $493.2 million worldwide, played into the hands of 3D’s critics. In a jeremiad in Newsweek, Roger Ebert called “Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward [3D] suicidal. It adds nothing toward the experience.”


Even a major 3D proselytizer like DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg warned that subpar 2D-to-3D conversions won’t cut it. “If you’re asking people to pay a premium price, you better deliver,” he said.

Warners got the message. Last month, it pulled the plug on its 3D conversion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

Second point: 3D’s popularity has been as much a question of supply as of demand. When Despicable Me opened in July, only 45 percent of its $56.4 million opening-weekend haul came from 3D ticket sales, which the 3D-is-fading crowd cited as evidence audiences were losing interest in the gimmick.

But they overlooked the fact that of the 3,476 theaters in which the movie was booked, only 1,551 — 45 percent — played it in 3D. Although exhibitors had been busy installing more 3D screens, Despicable had to share available screens with Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender.

That issue is resolving itself: This year, North American theaters have added 3,782 3D screens; the total now stands at 7,441. When Megamind opened, it played in 3D at 2,634 locations, 67 percent of its total playdates, and saw 66 percent of first-weekend sales came from 3D.

Final point: Not everyone is willing to pay the extra $2-$3 a ticket (even pricier in big cities). Jackass 3D and Saw 3D, which attracted thrill-seeking young males, did 90 percent of their business in 3D venues. But family audiences appear more price sensitive. In a consumer survey conducted in July, BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield found that 77 percent of respondents complained that 3D tickets cost too much and “are clearly differentiating between paying ‘up’ for movies like Avatar vs. less-exciting, lower-quality movies.”

Although his movies are on the high-quality end of the spectrum, Katzenberg is enough of a pragmatist to recognize that 3D films must also screen in 2D versions for the immediate future.

“As a family movie company, we won’t put movies out in exclusively 3D, which would be the equivalent of saying that if you can’t fly first class, you can’t get on the airplane,” he says. “It’s great to have a premium-level experience if you can afford it, but we’re not going to deny anyone the experience.”

3D may not be a magic bullet, but it’s becoming very much a part of Hollywood’s arsenal.

Carl DiOrio contributed to 
this report.