Show of hands: How many of you out there are so over movies in 3-D? What was once an evolutionary step that was supposed to revolutionize cinema and add exciting new dimensions to the moviegoing experience is now something many moviegoers often choose to live without. (Hey, some people can't afford that surcharge!) This summer saw an onslaught of films in 3-D at the multiplexes, many of which hit No. 1 at the box office in their opening weekend.
For the most part, these films didn't exactly raise the bar in both visual and narrative excellence. Even though blockbusters such as Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man used up-to-date, 3-D camera technology to elevate the visual wonder, it didn't follow that the movie was good. And let's not forget those blockbusters — Men in Black 3, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Avengers, sadly — originally shot in 2-D that slap on post-production 3-D conversion, ultimately making the movie look more like a mess than a marvel. (If you want to know which 3-D films are real or fake, visit RealorFake3D.com.)
Nevertheless, Hollywood honchos such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron insist 3-D cinema will get better. And Martin Scorsese, for one, has announced that he will work with 3-D for the rest of his career.
And there are those, like Chuck Tryon, who are still fascinated with the whole thing. Tryon, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Fayetteville State University, is the author of the 2009 book Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence. Tryon has closely followed the evolution of 21st-century 3-D cinema on his blog, The Chutry Experiment, and last March he posted a draft version of his paper, "After Avatar: 3D, Cinematic Revolution, and Digital Projection," which he presented at this year's Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston. Earlier this summer, I had an online chat with him about where 3-D cinema is headed.
ARTERY With everything that's happened so far this year, what are your views on 3-D now?
TRYON I'm finding myself thinking about 3-D much more than I expected, actually, but mostly from an industrial perspective. I've never been that enthusiastic about the expressive possibilities for 3-D and that hasn't changed, but I am intrigued (and concerned) about how 3-D is being used to shape how films are being distributed.
I revisited your paper last night. The thing with me regarding 3-D is if you don't have a good product that makes seeing it worthwhile, the whole 3-D aspect is kind of pointless. I mean, John Carter was in 3-D, and that was a big flop. They put 3-D all over The Phantom Menace, and people didn't flock to that.
You're right, of course. You can add all the dimensions you want to a bad movie and it will still stink. Audiences still know when they are being pandered to, and not all 3-D movies will sell simply on that basis. But 3-D still works incredibly well outside the United Statesespecially for movies like Wrath of the Titans, which did $83 million in North America and $218 million abroadso for many of the 3-D blockbusters, U.S. box office is only a small part of the equation. 3-D also artificially inflates box office totals due to the 3-D surcharge, even if attendance at some of these films was relatively flat.
In your piece, you raise an interesting point about how 3-D glasses are either rented or purchased overseas. Does that explain why 3-D movies do well internationally: Because the whole surcharge nonsense is omitted, making 3-D movies just as affordable to watch as 2-D movies?
I think it more or less ends up functioning similarly. In Italy (at least according to my exchange-student daughter), you would pay $3-$4 extra for a 3-D film. Whether that involves a "surcharge" or is classified as renting the glasses is probably trivial. I think that one of the main attractions might be the ability of well-financed Hollywood filmmakers to produce spectacular action scenes in a way that few other film industries can do. From what I've read, Europe is a few months behind us in terms of 3-D exhaustion, so it will probably happen there eventually, too. With China getting hundreds of 3-D equipped screens in the near future, it will be interesting to see how the format plays there.
But it all comes back to is it all worth it to see in 3-D. I've seen so many films in 3-D these past few years that I've forgotten which ones I've seen in 3-D and which ones I haven't. The allure of 3-D is kind of gone. Now it seems like filmmakers are putting 3-D in movies out of desperation, like the recent news of Paramount pushing back G.I. Joe: Retaliation from June to March to add 3-D to it.
I tend to be pretty selective about which films I will see in 3-D. I went out of my way to see Hugo, The Adventures of Tintin and (of all things) A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, in particular, but many people are already indifferent toward 3-D, in part because it still feels like something tacked on as an afterthought, not as something organic to the film. In fact, I've been impressed that Christopher Nolan has resisted efforts to do the third film in his Batman trilogy in 3-D.
The G.I. Joe example feels especially desperate, but there is another side to the industrial promotion of 3-D, and I think it has to do with efforts for the studios to gain even more control over the distribution process. In his recent book, Pandora's Digital Box, David Bordwell makes the case that 3-D was kind of a "Trojan horse" for digital projection in theaters and for adding more and more technological requirements to projectors.
Interestingly enough, you just brought up the only three movies last year I thought handled 3-D very well. But I love how you brought up digital projectors. It's safe to say now that all theaters will be digitally projected in the coming future. But it also brings up the issue of how 3-D digital projection has been interfering with 2-D digital projection. In Boston, many critics have been up in arms because the main multiplex down there often screens 2-D movies on projectors with the 3-D lens still on it, making the film look, well, bad. It seems like the more 3-D becomes a general thing, the more trouble it might cause for multiplexes.
Right, if I remember correctly, Roger Ebert (no fan of 3-D) cited a couple of columns by [Boston Globe film critic] Ty Burr on this subject. But we are well on our way to full adoption of digital projection. Even National Association of Theater Owners head John Fithian acknowledges that by the end of 2013, all of the majors will be distributing exclusively in digital formats. And Bordwell estimates that something like half of the 120,000-plus screens are now digital. The main complaint about leaving on the 3-D lens is that it makes the image much murkier.
But I think we will also see an increase in the necessity for constant upgrades and technology patches on digital projectors. Film projectors, with minor adjustments, have worked more or less the same way for decades, but some directors, including Cameron and Peter Jackson, are already pushing for (potentially expensive) upgrades that would allow projectors to display images at 48 to 60 frames per second, rather than the traditional 24 fps. It's kind of unclear who will pay for that, but I don't think most moviegoers will be happy about a frame-rate surcharge.
But it always comes down to money, isn't it? It seems they keep throwing money into something that people would pay for, if most of it was worthwhile. You said it yourself how even the manufacturing of 3-D glasses has became something of a wasteful, money-squandering practice. You'd think, in this age of general belt-tightening, they would cut corners or am I being too simplistic or naive in my thinking?
I think this is where all of the competing interests involved come into play. Certainly theater owners are being forced to cut corners (note the de-skilling of projectionists who can now show a movie at just a few clicks of a mouse) and studiossuch as Sonyare trying to cut costs under some circumstances (by passing along the cost of manufacturing 3-D glasses). But other groups, including the tech people in Hollywood, may benefit from pushing these additional features. I also wonder if studios are trying to do more to differentiate the theatrical experience from home viewing. 3-D offered that initially, of course, but now that the possibility of watching 3-D at home is becoming a possibility, so what's going to drive people back into theaters? One answer to that appears to be new forms of technological spectacle.
You mentioned James Cameron earlier, who is perhaps 3-D's most vocal cheerleader. He has said that 3-D will be the next logical evolution in cinema and all that, and people should accept it. In a sense, we've accepted it. But it seems the industry wants moviegoers to treat every 3-D movie that comes along as an event. Are there any new forms of technological spectacle you think will help out 3-D cinema? And, bottom line, where do you see 3-D headed in the future?
Cameron is certainly the most vocal cheerleader, but Scorsese's quieter promotion of the format helps to give it artistic credibility. The event status of 3-D seems to be fading a little. I didn't get a sense that anyone cared that much about the use of 3-D in The Avengers it's just one of the formats in which you can see the movie. I know that Jackson and Cameron have been working the scene at CinemaCon and elsewhere to promote faster frame rates. So, that's a possibility, and I'm sure that there are other innovations on the way. I think there will continue to be parallel 2-D and 3-D releases for a while (especially since many viewers cannot watch 3-D without getting headaches), but as long as 3-D is seen as adding value, it will continue to be a part of the distribution landscape.
This article is a longer version of one which appeared in print with the headline "The next dimension."