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November 22, 2011

The Impending Doom of 3D: Can Hollywood Save its Savior?

What seems like quite a long time ago, the talk of the town was that 3D would be the savior of the film industry. The reincarnated effect was going to make the movies fun again, make new and exciting experiences that couldn't be recreated at home and (most importantly) bring in new revenue for studios that had begun to flounder and stagnate. 3D was going to solve all of their problems, forever. Remember?

So what the hell happened?

James Cameron's Avatar was released in mid-December of 2009 to huge critical praise, lines of attendees who went back for multiple viewings and was earning more money than anyone knew what to do with. It's no secret that Cameron had set his sights on making 3D the leading format for future films, even going so far as to help theater chains retrofit their projectors to handle the upcoming 3D rush. Whether or not you believed that the 3D effect added anything to the film itself, it was hard to deny that this massively profitable CGI stunner was a game-changer. What remained to be seen was whether the change would be for the better or for the worse.

Louis Leterrier provided the first cautionary tale against 3D with Clash of the Titans in April of 2010. The picture was muddy and the 3D (put in retroactively) was weak, spotty and served no useful purpose. Still, the movie made a profit; that was the beginning of the end. In just one year, the major studios started shoehorning 3D into anything that was family-focused or action-packed. They all wanted that sweet jump in profits that 3D promised.

Studio heads had to know they were killing the golden goose, but making movies is primarily a business and the high sales numbers probably looked fantastic on some junior executive's quarterly report. The films they forced into 3D format were crammed full of superfluous effects and lacked cohesive plot lines, but people went to see them anyway for the novelty that 3D still afforded. Unfortunately, novelty eventually wears off. It started with the cost; the extra five to eight dollars per ticket was not sitting pretty with most American families. In less than a year, expensive, flashy 3D became a deterrent to audiences as often as it attracted them. Today, "family-friendly" hits like Despicable Me, Kung-Fu Panda 2 and the final Harry Potter film get less than half of their ticket sales from the 3D versions of their movies. Enough is enough.

Is there a way to save 3D, to bring back its potential for storytelling and immersion? It's possible, but unlikely.

3D should only be used when the film lends itself well to the format. Movies like Coraline benefit from 3D because it gives depth to an otherwise flat picture. Viewing Coraline feels like watching a live-action diorama, an experience that harmonizes nicely with the film and its macabre fairy-tale style. Contrast this with bad 3D and you can really tell the difference. The worst offenders just periodically make things look like they're flying out of the screen. This isn't the 1950s and that isn't going to impress anyone anymore. This type of 3D is lazy and a bit condescending; like a parent jingling car keys in front of her baby.

For a 3D film to work, the effect has to enhance the audience's experience, not become the focus. Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a good example of the best 3D. Despite being crammed into a tiny cave too small to stand up in, the 3D cameras allow the audience to actually feel the buildup of minerals over ancient cave drawings and to feel as if they're investigating the cave right alongside Herzog.

The easiest way to save 3D from being abused would be to do away with the surcharge. It isn't profitable any more because the higher cost deters customers. The novelty is gone, so why pay almost twice as much to see crappy 3D effects when you could enjoy a nice, normal film for less? Studios also need to settle on a single format and let people keep their 3D glasses. Theaters could sell them for 50 cents or a dollar and customers would have an incentive to return and watch more 3D films. The key is to get butts in seats, not to punish the curious.

With Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin and Martin Scorsese's Hugo both coming out in the next month, there's a chance that Hollywood will finally be forced to confront the truth. Both of these films look gorgeous in 3D and spend very little time trying to throw things out of the screen. Unfortunately, given the general distaste for 3D at the moment, it's possible that not enough people will actually go and experience it. Watching two A-list directors deliver two high-quality films to general audience indifference might be just the wake-up call Hollywood needs.