The End Of The 3D Movie Boom

Shockingly, a tactic used by movie studios and movie theaters to juice profits without much, if any, thought to how it impacts the viewer experience or the content of films, is not proving to be a long-term success:

Despite the optimistic title, the writing is on the wall for studios, which have become increasingly reliant on those ruby tinted spectacles for profits.”3D attendance has been declining on a per-film basis since the release of ‘Avatar,’ and we expect the growth in 3D film releases to flatten out,” the study’s authors write. Part of the culprit is that studios are not increasing the number of films they release in 3D like they once were, and theater chains in the United States are not doing as much to expand their network of 3D compatible theaters after a building frenzy. “Recent 3D releases have underperformed, screen build-out has slowed and ticket premiums are unlikely to increase,” the study’s authors write.

As someone who is a 3D skeptic, in part because I have to wear the glasses over my glasses, which is both physically uncomfortable and means the effects don’t work as well for me as for other people, there are only three uses of 3D I’ve found that justify the use of the technology, which even for non-glasses wearers has some detriments like turning down the brightness of color:

1. To explore the built or natural physical environment of a fictional world: There’s a reason Avatar is the highest-grossing movie, 3D or otherwise, to ever be made. James Cameron designed a fiendishly creative world, made it gorgeous, and used 3D to make his fictions real. If he was shooting on a real planet with familiar flora and fauna, Cameron could have counted on our minds to pop out the plants and animals we’d seen before and make them feel visceral and alive. Instead, he let us play. I’d argue that one of the reasons Thor wasn’t as entertaining as I wish it had been is that we got glimpses of Asgard, but instead of tooling around and through the city, courtesy some bodacious 3D, we instead got a lot of throne room scenes and a lot of distant cityspaces. Hopefully when we return, we’ll get some more Asgardian architecture to feast our eyes on.


2. To provide a sense of actual scale: Martin Scorcese’s Hugo may be the best 3D movie I’ve ever seen, in part because it used the tactic for both the first reason on this list and the second. We meet the train station where the movie’s young protagonist lives out his days as secret keeper of the clocks through a big, meandering 3D introduction that whips us through the cogs and pistons of the timepieces. And 3D, by situating us in the frame, helps us see how small and vulnerable Hugo is, and the magnitude of the work he’s doing in order to stay free and fed. The shots of him hanging over the station floor in the giant clock there have a marvelous sense of scale, and as a result, of stakes.

3. To make your audience physically uncomfortable: I tend to believe that if the story and basic images you’re putting on screen don’t transport viewers, you’ve got problems already. But there are times in which I can see a movie wanting to give viewers an overwhelming sense of speed, or a fall, or a reversal of perspective or direction, in which case 3D could be a way to make the situation feel overwhelming.

I’m sure there are more good filmmaking scenarios that would justify 3D. But much of the time it feels like we’re paying a couple of extra bucks mainly for the privilege of wearing plastic glasses for two hours, rather than having a different movie-going experience. If you want to convince audiences that your movie is literally worth more because it’s in 3D, then you need to show that to them on the screen, rather than expect them to believe it.