This year has seen an unprecedented number of 3-D releases, to be topped off by James Cameron's long-awaited 'Avatar' in December. DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has decreed that all his studio's releases henceforth must include 3-D prints. And Hollywood seems to think that 3-D, after decades of haphazard tinkering, is finally poised to save the industry by prying people away from their home theaters and Web browsers and pulling them back into theaters. But has anyone stopped to ask whether audiences actually like 3-D? "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should," said Jeff Goldblum's naysayer in 'Jurassic Park.' So it is with 3-D movies.
This year has seen an unprecedented number of 3-D releases, to be topped off by James Cameron's long-awaited 'Avatar' in December. DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has decreed that all his studio's releases henceforth must include 3-D prints. And Hollywood seems to think that 3-D, after decades of haphazard tinkering, is finally poised to save the industry by prying people away from their home theaters and Web browsers and pulling them back into theaters. But has anyone stopped to ask whether audiences actually like 3-D?
Skeptic No. 1 is the nation's top film critic. Roger Ebert has been railing against 3-D for some time, saying it adds nothing to the viewing experience and even detracts from it, dimming the colors and distracting moviegoers with extraneous information. He's reiterating his disdain for the process in a Spectator article headlined, where he writes, "Has anyone ever attended a 2-D movie and thought, 'If only it were in 3-D'? I doubt it, because 2-D creates a perfectly effective illusion of depth and dimension. When I see Lawrence [in 'Lawrence of Arabia'] growing from a dot far across the desert sands, it never occurs to me that I'm watching a 2-D image. When I watch 3-D, however, I'm constantly reminded that it's in 3-D."
Another gripe against 3-D: it's fun for kids but it's awfully juvenile. Sure, it's fine for cartoons, horror movies and Jonas Brothers concert films, but has anyone used it to tell mature, artful stories that adults can appreciate? It still seems gimmicky, and grown-ups blanch at having to wear the glasses, which give some of them headaches. At worst, 3-D can be just another way to paper over flaws in storytelling and acting with attention-grabbing special effects.
True, 'Coraline' and 'Up' earned praise for their storytelling, but those movies were arguably just as good in 2-D. And they're both still kid-friendly animation; no one has yet made a 3-D movie that's aimed strictly at adults. Even Cameron's 'Avatar' may not change that. If anyone can figure out how to use the technology as a storytelling tool, it's the director who revolutionized the use of CGI in 'Terminator 2' but he's still making sci-fi stories for kids and teens.
Of course, the most obvious audience complaint about 3-D may be the price. The glasses typically add a $3 surcharge to the price of your ticket. Of course, that's what exhibitors and studios like about it. (Though exhibitors have grumbled, too, about the start-up cost of converting their screens to 3D.) It's true that some of this year's 3-D movies have been box office successes, but only a fraction of that box office is attributable to converted screens, as many theaters are still showing the regular versions of the films.
Studios also like it that 3-D is harder to pirate. And there may be yet another plus for the major studios in that the filming technology is so prohibitively expensive that indie filmmakers and other outsiders are less likely to use it, leaving the sandbox to Hollywood big shots. And there are countless movies that can be retrofitted to 3D (like the recent re-release of the 'Toy Story' movies, or next year's 3D re-release of 'Titanic' that might get people to pay to see studios' back catalog movies one more time.
Hollywood's current fondness for 3-D recalls its initial use in the 1950s, when the studios saw the new medium of television as a threat to theater attendance and tried all kinds of gimmicks (3-D, wider screens, vibrating seats) to give moviegoers what they couldn't get at home. But the novelty quickly wore off; the glasses seemed silly at best and irritating at worst; and studios and viewers alike dismissed 3-D filmmaking as strictly kiddie fare. Attempts to revive 3-D over the decades have met with similar indifference. This time, however, the studios are committed to it, and they're as desperate as they were 50 years ago to give people a reason to get off their sofas.
Even the current vogue, however, may not last. Next year, there'll be HDTVs that can bring the 3-D experience to your living room. There's no proof yet that 3-D will make viewers pay to see films they wouldn't have watched in 2-D, or that it'll bring them back to theaters to see familiar movies tricked out in new trappings. And even filmmakers may be slow to embrace it. Discussing the piracy problems of 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' earlier this year, the film's producer, Hollywood veteran Lauren Shuler Donner, told Entertainment Weekly, "Studios are working on it, and 3-D keeps getting mentioned because you can't download 3-D. But I don't want to make every movie in 3D."
-- By Gary Susman