The 3-D Time Bomb

Article first published as The 3-D Time Bomb on Blogcritics.

In my years, I have seen the 3D movie fad come and go a few times. It’s always the “next big thing” that’s “just around the corner,” but every time we round that corner, poof! The next big thing has packed it in and skipped town. That’s one reason why I remain skeptical that Hollywood’s current infatuation with three dimensions is anything but a passing fancy, not a committed relationship. The movie business will eventually return to its normally shallow, two-dimensional ways.

This current cinematic affair with depth seems to have a bit more staying power than before. Obviously the technology is much improved over early attempts. Early flirtations with 3-D have always seemed a little like a quickie in the back seat with a girl from the trailer park. This new wave feels like you and Alma Lou have at least gotten a room at the Super8. The glasses no longer give me a headache and feeling of nausea like I just woke up from a three-day bender. I have to concede, if this girl is here to stay, you can take her home to meet the folks (as long as she wears something that covers that tattoo on her lower back).

The main reason that this 3-D fling might be semi-permanent is that Hollywood (and the theater chains) have discovered that they can charge a 50-60 percent premium for tickets to movies when they are shown in 3D, artificially inflating the box office grosses. The gargantuan success of James Cameron’s Avatar has seduced the film industry into thinking that any 3-D film is a license to print money. As a result, since the beginning of 2010, almost every movie of the action and fantasy variety has been released as a 3-D movie, even if it wasn’t filmed that way.

When I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which had been converted after the fact to 3-D, the effect was… so what? 3-D added virtually nothing to my enjoyment of the film, which was pretty minimal to begin with. The impact of a third dimension is severely diluted if the image on the screen was not composed with that in mind, with the necessary depth of field. I remain skeptical that a 3-D conversion can ever be as effective as a film shot with 3-D cameras in the first place.

Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from Avatar, that 3-D films were a sure thing, like the girl who goes down on everybody who tells her she’s pretty (probably because of some serious self-esteem issues, if you know what I mean). The lesson they should have taken away was that it takes a visual spectacle and a master technician like James Cameron to make 3-D even worth the effort. Let any hack make a 3-D movie and you’ll just wind up with things flying randomly at the screen, because everyone knows that is how you make 3-D movies, just like every Led Zeppelin cover band has to play “Whole Lotta Love.”

Avatar played none of those cheap tricks with us. The 3-D effect was used adroitly to give Cameron’s imagined world a startlingly immersive quality. Thanks to the director’s skillful use of the third dimension, Sully’s trips through the trees of Pandora were breathtaking and vertigo-inducing. This is good because, without the 3-D effect, you soon realize that you’re just watching a $300 million version of Pocahontas without the narrative depth of the Disney cartoon.

And there’s no way around the fact that the current wave of 3-D is going to be with us for a while. George Lucas is going to start releasing 3-D versions of all six Star Wars movies and Peter Jackson is shooting the two new Hobbit movies in 3-D as well. I’m actually okay with both of those, because I’m now used to Lucas wringing every last dollar out of his credulous fans and because, like Cameron, Jackson is a technical master who will make the 3-D work for his films. Hopefully, like the Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit will also be worth watching in plain old 2-D as well.

I may not know how long this current wave of 3-D mania will last, or even if it will die, but if it dies, I have a pretty good idea that it will not go quietly. Call it the Atari/E.T. phenomenon. Back in the pre-history of video games, back when game consoles had less computer power than that cell phone you had five years ago, the Atari 2600 was the Xbox/Playstation of its day. Video game cartridges sold like tabs of ecstasy during Spring Break. Because making games for the 2600 was easier than stealing money from the government, game companies produced more and more games of increasingly diminished levels of entertainment value. At the exact time that the market was flooded with games that were underwhelming at best, they released a video game based on Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

With a property based on the hottest movie of all time at that point, game company executives must have figured they could easily afford to buy both mistresses matching Bentleys. More copies of this game were produced than several other hit titles combined. Unfortunately, the game sucked in ways that few video games (or any other entertainment product) have ever sucked since the beginning of recorded history. At just the point when people were getting burned out on shoddy video games, Atari had produced a game that couldn’t have been less desirable if it came with a dose of small pox. The end result was like a stake through the heart of the early game industry, and certainly hastened the demise of Atari as a force in that industry.

As time goes by and if the artificially high grosses of 3-D films keep convincing the movie industry that the premium they can charge for this gimmick make it a box-office sure thing, they will become more brazen in the amount of money they sink into 3-D (and virtually all mega-budget pictures will have to be 3-D, just to hedge the bet). The ticket prices will continue to creep higher and 3-D prices will get closer to twenty dollars and eventually pass it (you heard it here first). One day, someone will “bet the farm” on a 3-D movie that seems like slam dunk according to conventional Hollywood thinking. Maybe it will be Avatar 3. It could be another Transformers movie. Perhaps someone will decide to make Deuce Bigalow: Martian Gigolo in 3-D. Does it really matter?

With the movie industry no longer even blinking at budgets in the $200 million range and Avatar costing close to $300 million, this currently hypothetical production could approach or even surpass the half-billion dollar mark. Risk will be shared between multiple studios, a common enough practice these days, but even that won’t insulate the partners in the case of a bust. It won’t fail, of course, because everyone knows this movie is a guaranteed hit and they get to charge close to twenty bucks a head for the 3-D (and virtually every screen in the land showing it will be 3-D). They can’t lose.

But they can, because we all know no one can really predict such things. Movie history is littered with mega-budget blockbusters that crashed and burned, as well as low-budget indies that came from nowhere to clean up. Imagine that, by the second weekend, you’re be able to fire a cannon through theaters showing this half-billion dollar sure thing and not harm a soul. The box office receipts fall to the level of bus fare, and as the film slowly limps out of theaters, the red ink between the budget and the box office take is enough to remove several small countries from the map.

With a budget of $44 million and grosses less than $4 million, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was able to bring MGM, one of the iconic names in the film industry, to its corporate knees. Think what a half-billion dollar black hole could do, even with the risk spread among multiple players. Two or more household names among the major studios still standing: Paramount, Universal, Warner, could be taken down. A whole list of minor players would probably be wiped out. The industry will conclude, in its inimitable capacity to miss the forest for the trees, that the public is just tired of 3-D, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the film in question might have sucked donkey balls.

With a lot of money gone and the other purse-strings tighter than your teenager’s year-old shoes, those left standing from the carnage will immediately put the brakes on new 3-D production so hard that you’ll be able to tell who was working on those projects by their whiplash collars. 3-D films currently in the pipe will still be released and, if the industry is lucky, one of them will be enough of a hit to ease a little of a pain for that year, which for the next few decades, will be spoken of within the film business in tones usually reserved for serial killers. Even a blockbuster at this point, however, will probably not be enough to keep people in the industry from getting fired for using the term “3-D” within earshot of their employer.

Of course, this is all just speculation, but it’s speculation that did not require a lot of imagination on my part. Most of it was just a product of extrapolating current trends with some well-established history thrown into the mix. It may not happen, but the sequence of events that I laid out here is neither impossible, unimaginable or even implausible.

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