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Is 3D Movie Exhibition Dying, Both at Home and in Theaters?

Every two years, I like to check in on the realm of 3D filmmaking and exhibition, particularly as it relates to the home theater.

Is 3D Movie Exhibition Dying, Both at Home and in Theaters?

Aug 25, 2014 7:05 PM, By Jason Bovberg

Every two years, I like to check in on the realm of 3D filmmaking and exhibition, particularly as it relates to the home theater. In 2010, I wrote a column called “Why 3D Home Theater Will (and Should) Fail”, in which I talked about 3D in the age of James Cameron’s Avatar, and how that movie almost single-handedly caused a mass exodus to electronics stores in order to gear up with home theater equipment capable of approximating the 3D experience in the home. Two years later, in 2012, I wrote “Enjoying 3D at Home Is Still a Maddening Prospect”, in which I checked in on the format to see how those consumers were faring with their home equipment.

Not so well, it turned out. Expensive equipment, bulky glasses, and a dearth of captivating 3D content added up to a technology that perhaps wasn’t ready for prime time. So, the question is, have we reached prime time for 3D yet?

Today, another two years have passed, and the 3D industry hasn’t exactly thrived but rather has seemed to settle into a kind of stasis. If my widespread group of tech friends (and the members of forums I frequent) are any indication, the 3D equipment and peripherals in their homes are more likely sitting untouched in bins or gathering dust on shelves than enjoying frequent use. And this seems to also be a reflection of how new 3D films are being received by audiences in theaters.

After all, over the past four years, the number of 3D movies in theaters has steadily fallen—in half, actually. In 2014, of the hundreds of films hitting theaters, only 28 movies will be available in 3D. All expectations are that this trend will continue—at least until, say, the next Avatar film comes out, and the renaissance begins anew. But I have a feeling consumers won’t be so quick to start shelling out hundreds of dollars for the home experience next time.

Just recently, a superior 3D film hit theaters, reminding us all over again about the potential of the format (some prefer the term “gimmick”). That movie was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Similar to Avatar, it was a box-office smash, and its ticket sales favored the high-end, digital 3D and IMAX presentations, turning the movie experience into an EVENT. By any measure, this 3D experience, combined with the film’s Dolby Atmos sound design as well as ever-evolving standards in digital projection, was thrilling and gorgeous—as captivating as any 3D film in the history of the format. And yet it did not spark a rush to Best Buy to load up on new 3D Blu-ray players, extra glasses, and, sure, maybe a few existing 3D titles. Rather, all it seemed to yield was some excitement that, finally, some good content would eventually become available for our existing dusty setups.

And that is not a recipe for success. Especially long-term.

Are we at the end of just the latest 3D cycle? I’ve pointed out that, since its inception in the 1950s, we’ve had three or four major 3D eras in the history of movies. The latest era—spearheaded and mastered by James Cameron—benefits hugely from the modern exhibitor’s digital projection equipment, making the image rock-steady (compared with wobbly-sprocketed film), as well as the filmmaker’s CG tools, which bring new clarity and brightness (not to mention more powerful 3D effects) to filmmaking itself. And just recently, I’ve noticed that exhibitors are finally paying real attention to the lingering problem of brightness that plagues all 3D presentations. To accommodate the inherently image-dimming effects of the 3D glasses, projector brightness has to be cranked up to bring the image back to watchability. (I’m not seeing this brightening in all cases, but enough so that I know it’s been addressed as a legitimate concern.)

Understanding that 3D presentation is at its best in history, and exhibitors have finally ironed out some kinks in projection, why isn’t 3D flourishing? The answer probably lies in the fact that while we get perhaps one film of Gravity caliber per year—a strong film that’s tailor-made to the format and was shot with actual 3D cameras—we get many more average films for which 3D seems an afterthought, converted to 3D in post-production. Yes, the 3D post-conversion process is itself improving (the recent Guardians of the Galaxy is an example of strong 3D post-conversion), but that in itself doesn’t bring to the market wonderful 3D movies to get truly excited about. And customers have caught on.

Oh, and let’s face it: The price is still too high. I recently took my kids to see Guardians of the Galaxy at our local multiplex. My first instinct is to always go with the 2D presentation simply because it’s cheaper and more reliable. However, because I read the listing wrong, I accidentally brought us to a 3D showing. How did I find out I’d made a mistake? The cashier, already swiping my debit card, voiced a price that was at least $10 more than I expected to pay. And out came the 3D glasses.

I groaned.

But the experience also got me thinking. Will we get to a point at which studios and exhibitors are so keen to increase 3D ticket sales that they begin to reduce the number of 2D options in favor of increased numbers of 3D showings? Imagine a moviegoing reality in which customers have no choice but to go the 3D route. It could happen! But that would be rather idiotic in an era when more and more consumers are skipping theaters altogether and instead escaping to Netflix, OnDemand, and Blu-ray.

Realistically, what we’re seeing is a trajectory in the opposite direction. We’re starting to see fewer 3D showings and more 2D showings, suggesting that the consumer voice is being heard. What we might be experiencing is a situation in which Hollywood has poisoned 3D—thanks to its initial greed and rush-to-market with expensive, inferior 3D products—and now faces a disinterested public that attends 3D showings more as a result of reading listings wrong than actually preferring that format.

And that disinterest seems to be extending to the home theater. What are your thoughts about your 3D equipment at home? How often do you use it? Enough to warrant the purchase? Given the choice, do you choose the 2D or the 3D presentation at the movie theater? I’m curious how you view this particular era of 3D. Drop me a line!

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