The Return of 3-D – International Edition


It’s the week after Memorial Day, and that means it’s a fine time to check in with Hollywood’s latest favorite moneymaking scheme, the 3-D movie. Last year at this time, as you may recall, there was some moral outrage when 3-D tickets for the final Shrek movie climbed as high as $20 in some places — while the film itself underperformed. This year, according to a hand-wringing article on 3-D in the New York Times, the numbers are in on several would-be summer blockbusters, and they’re not encouraging. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2 saw less than half of their (relatively soft) domestic opening-weekend grosses come from 3-D, which has typically been garnering about 60 percent of the grosses for “event”-type films.

This is not good news for Hollywood, which has invested heavily in the 3-D process for big films this summer and has twice as many 3-D films this summer as it did last year, including what are (presumably) the final installments for both the Transformers and Harry Potter series. If 3-D doesn’t offer the expected box-office boost for these films, it’s going to be a long summer for the movie studios, which have already been seeing domestic box-office and attendance declines this year and can no longer rely on home-video sales to bail them out on the back end.
So does this mean that Hollywood will finally get the fact that 3-D is not a magical, mystical money-spinner? No! Because
here’s the thing: those 3-D declines are here, in the domestic market; out
in the rest of the world, 3-D seems to be humming along just fine. Case
in point: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which,
while tracking below previous editions of the series here in the U.S., has
been a monster hit elsewhere in the world. So much so that in two
weeks it has grossed almost as much worldwide ($634 million) as the
first film of the series did in its entire run ($654 million). And of
course much of that spectacular performance is due to 3-D showings,
which, as in the U.S., are priced more than the traditional 2-D
presentations.

Now Hollywood will be watching to see how the
rest of the summer goes, not just here at home but internationally. If
3-D continues to be soft domestically but boffo overseas, then guess
what? There are going to be more films than ever in the 3-D process because, at the end of the day, Hollywood makes its movies for wherever there’s money to be made. And if that means making its movies for the tastes of people other than North Americans — well, that’s not a hard choice to make, especially when the studios can just ship more 2-D versions to theaters at home.

That said, I think the chances are
fairly high that studios might be taking home the wrong message from the
overseas enthusiasm for 3-D. It’s entirely possible that international
markets may simply like 3-D more than domestic markets or, alternately,
that the sort of films that do well internationally — effects-laden,
dialogue-light explode-athons — lend themselves to the 3-D process.
But it’s also possible that international markets, which are generally
newer to the 3-D process than the home market, are simply not as
disillusioned with 3-D as North Americans are. They have yet to catch up
with the idea that most films don’t need 3-D and indeed some films
are worse with it — darker, harder to see, and often manufactured by an
inferior computer process after the fact rather than designed with the
process in mind and shot with 3-D-native equipment.

In which case,
Hollywood isn’t necessarily being smart with 3-D; it’s merely postponing the inevitable. In a year or two, the rest of the world might catch up with us here at home and shrug at the idea of 3-D films in general, and Hollywood will be left scrambling for the next technological gimmick to get people into theaters.

Or,
alternately, Hollywood could do something remarkable: learn from its
mistakes and not just slap “3-D” onto every middling film it hopes to get a
boost out of and instead make an effort to integrate the 3-D process
into the films from the start. Make better 3-D films, in other words.
The slapdash approach they took with 3-D has already messed with the
domestic market, but it’s not too late to keep the international market
excited about the format — and, consequently, paying more money for it. Is
that too much to hope for? Probably. But it’s nice to think about
nonetheless.

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