An in-depth look at the problems with 3D


A version of this article originally appeared on my blog in reaction to my continuing struggle to find 2D screenings of films predominantly released in 3D. Having read Tom’s report on Wall Street’s speculation that the ‘appeal’ of 3D is on the wane, admittedly based on some rather questionable evidence, I thought it would be interesting to open up the debate and gauge how the Flixist readership feels about the technology.

Since becoming a reviewer for Flixist last October, I’ve seen forty films on assignment (forty-one when counting the X-Men: First Class review which will be going up tomorrow!). As anyone who has been to the cinema in recent years will attest, this can get quite expensive, especially if you add a drink and popcorn, which I generally like to do, as much to help the cinema – who have insanely narrow margins on the sale of tickets – as to have something to stuff my face with when the explosions kick off. But one problem I’ve encountered time and time again, both for trying to keep costs down and as a personal preference, is finding 2D showings of 3D movies.

Even though most movies utilising the technology advertise themselves as being available in 2D at selected venues, finding them can be difficult at best and are usually so far out of the way that the added cost of travel far outstrips the extra ~£2.50/$4 (or £3.50/$6 if I forget to bring my glasses, which happens infuriatingly often) 3D movie charge.

The technology’s advocates state the huge box-office gross of many 3D movies as proof that audiences love the experience, that it is giving the industry an edge over internet pirates and is making the movie-going experience more immersive and jaw-dropping than ever. But as someone who, thus far, is most definitely not a fan and resents having to pay extra for an experience I find at best gimmicky and often detractive, I wonder not only how true those claims are, but whether the technology has been forced on, rather than welcomed by, audiences.

Let’s take the statement about the financial success of 3D movies to date. There’s no question that many of the most successful movies released since the technology’s inception have been those that utilise it: Avatar, the movie that began the boom, is the most successful cinematic release of all time, taking a staggering $2.7bn at the box-office. Many of 2010’s most popular releases, including Alice In Wonderland, Toy Story 3 (both with billion-dollar intakes), Clash of the Titans and Jackass 3D to name but a few, were also in 3D.

That’s an impressive catalogue to have backing up your argument, but also one which comes with a fair few caveats. The first is the issue I raised earlier about how difficult it can be to find 2D screenings of 3D releases. I can’t speak definitely for people living outside the UK, but I see most of my movies in London, a city you’d assume to be large and culturally expansive enough that distribution strategies there would match those in similar locations around the globe. If it is such a challenge to track down a 2D screening there, let alone find one conveniently located, it would surprise me to learn that the situation is significantly different anywhere else. Nevertheless, I’ll happily be corrected on that.

If that point is a little on the speculative side, let’s bring in more concrete details. Yes, there have been many hugely successful 3D movies, yet looking across the list, I’d suggest that the vast majority of those movies are blockbusters which would have been surefire hits regardless. You can find a list of the wide release 3D movies of the past two years at the 3D film Wikipedia page (scroll down from the section linked to) if you want to verify this assertion for yourself.

Despite the high profile status of nearly all the movies on that list, there’s a noticeable slump when checking the gross of those that might be called second-tier releases, i.e. the ones with big production budgets but a less impressive marketing buzz than the likes of Avatar or Thor. Priest, for example, was a large-scale release, yet has only just broken even on its production costs. Sanctum, a movie advertised with James Cameron’s name and with 3D as a major selling point, didn’t come close to breaking the $100m barrier. Drive Angry 3D, whose marketing again leant heavily on its use of the tech, made a loss of about $20m, while Mars Needs Moms, a CG animation (as reliable an audience as there has ever been) with a strong marketing push, failed to recoup even a third of its budget.

The surcharge on tickets for 3D movies also has to be taken into account when considering those movies’ gross revenue at the box office (so excluding taxes etc) – for the same number of viewers, a 2D version of those same releases would have brought a significant percentage less without that extra cost per ticket. Based on my experience of 3D and 2D ticket prices in London, I’ll place that percentage at a flat 20% for the sake of argument and clarity.

While many of the movies on the list would still have made a decent profit, the numbers would not have been nearly so impressive – Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol, for example, would have brought in around $260m on a $200m budget with 20% of its gross deducted. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, meanwhile, brought in less money on its opening international weekend than any of its three predecessors in the series and while $90.1m is still an impressive number, even opening to no significant competition, losing that 20% leaves $72m, which verges on underwhelming for one of Hollywood’s major franchises. Avatar is arguably the only movie whose gross was increased by tangible curiosity for the technology, seeing as how it was at the forefront of its modern revival  and marked the return to blockbuster filmmaking of one of the most successful directors of all time, following an absence of over ten years.

I don’t think I’m alone amongst movie enthusiasts in my dislike of the technology. The majority of my close friends are regular cinemagoers, and none among them have ever disagreed with me on this point. High profile figures such as Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode (one of the UK’s most well-known and respected critics) have voiced their opposition to the technology, not least in the discomfort of wearing the glasses and the increased darkness levels that come with it. There’s also no shortage of talk that many working in the creative side of the film industry are equally unhappy, both on a practical (making their jobs more difficult) and artistic level.

Even on the internet, where no opinion has ever gone understated, reactions appear mixed: this article on Collider about James Cameron and Michael Bay’s recent presentation of the technology and its implementation in the upcoming Transformers: Dark of the Moon has received 22 comments at the time of writing. While there are a fair number of 3D supporters – as would be expected from an article on two major Hollywood figures discussing for fifteen minutes the 3D’s biggest outing since Avatar – just as many commenters voiced issues with it in its present state.

There are also questions about how healthy 3D is: considering the extra cost and how few traditional screenings of 3D movies there seem to be, the technology seems only likely to drive away viewers with visual impairments who are either unable to process the effect,  or worse still suffer headaches or nausea, as was reported in many screenings when the tech was still new enough to merit the writing space. The question of whether it is healthy for anyone’s eyes to be taking the added strain of artificial depth perception (an acknowledged issue) remains unanswered.

Given these issues, I would question whether 3D will actually end up encouraging piracy among those who either don’t like or literally cannot use the technology. From personal experience, I am increasingly reluctant to go and see another 3D movie, driven away by high costs and a lack of choice, which makes the idea of downloading releases that otherwise interest me – even though I can honestly and proudly say that I never have or will – a greater temptation than ever.

From the reactions I’ve read and heard, it would seem to me that far more people are being driven away from the cinema by 3D than attracted by it. Perhaps as the technology evolves, it will become more palatable and health questions will subside. For big, trashy blockbusters like Transformers, I can certainly see it becoming a fun option one day, provided those damn glasses disappear. But I shudder at the thought of such artistic masterpieces as The Godfather or Once Upon A Time In The West having their canvases stained with the vulgarity of simulated depth, and at the very least, prices will have to level  with 2D screenings so that people with sight issues are no longer being overcharged.

So what are your feelings about 3D? Have you never looked back since Avatar, or been put off by the flood of post-conversion rush-jobs that followed? Have you ever suffered headaches or felt tired after a screening? The value of 3D, both creatively and financially, is one of the biggest debates for moviegoers right now – what’s your perspective?