Are 3D Movies Over?

Even James Cameron has joined the list of doomsayers

Audience watching a 3D movie in a theater.
Fuse
Audience watching a 3D movie in a theater.
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When James Cameron says there's too much 3D in movies, it's time to listen.

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In a recent talk with fellow sci-fi/fantasy director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), the director criticized Hollywood for releasing too many movies in 3D. He made a distinction between movies shot in 3D, like Avatar, and those converted to 3D in post-production. In his view, Hollywood is "pushing 3D to directors who are not comfortable or do not like 3D." Cameron cited Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel as current blockbusters that didn't need to be in 3D. " If you spend $150 million on visual effects, the film is already going to [look] spectacular [and] perfect," he said.

And there are other signs that the recent surge of 3D proliferation has hit a wall. It's de rigeur nowadays for animated films to come out in 3D, but Despicable Me 2 became a smash this month even though only 27 percent of its opening weekend gross came from 3D tickets, a record low. The previous record was 31 percent, set a few weeks earlier by Monsters University. Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, one of the few movies whose 3D work critics actually praised for enhancing the storytelling, opened with just 33 percent of its sales coming from 3D. Critics who've complained that 3D is an annoying fad (except, of course, when auteurs like Luhrmann or Martin Scorsese or Ridley Scott use it) are finally being proven right, as audiences in North America apparently are tiring of paying extra for films that look perfectly good, and perhaps even better, in plain old 2D.

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A further sign that the 3D vogue is cooling: sales of 3D-capable screens have never taken off in the TV business, even as the business moves on to the next innovation, 4K (ultra-high defninition) screens. As a result, the BBC and ESPN have announced they're scrapping their 3D channels. Australian broadcasters are also dropping 3D, perhaps proving that the boom in 3D TV that Avatar was expected to launch never materialized.

Nonetheless, Hollywood won't be abandoning 3D anytime soon, or even cutting back much. The reason? The novelty hasn't worn off for overseas audiences, especially in the market Hollywood is courting the most eagerly. "China won’t look at anything that isn’t 3D, which means everything is made that way — even with domestic audiences rejecting it," producer Lynda Obst told New York last month. Cameron seemed to echo her criticism with his remark that studios have taken control over 3D away from filmmakers, and that the use of 3D has "become a studio-driven top down process to make money."

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Not all action-spectacle directors object to the post-production 3D conversion process. At a screening of Pacific Rim at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, director Guillermo del Toro insisted that his new giant-robots-vs.-monsters epic proves that post-production 3D conversion is artistically valid. "The scale is mythical, a disregard for human scale, and it's a huge change to see it in 3D. You have to see it on the most obscenely large screen," he said. "I wanted to make this movie as a case for post-conversion of 3D can be great."

Eventually, technology will catch up to the studios' yen for 3D, once glasses-free 3D is perfected. Home screens with specs-free 3D will be available within the next 12 months. The effect may not yet be very good, or reasonably priced, but with time, the bugs will likely be ironed out. And once it's working at home, Hollywood will be eager to supply the technology with content, and the 3D wave will begin all over again.