The slow, quiet death of 3D cinema

The slow, quiet death of 3D cinema

Although we consider 3D a recent phenomenon in cinema, its history began all the way back in the early 1800s, coming to cinemas by the early 20th century.

Indeed, even in the German film industry of the 1910s, 3D was seen as an expensive, cumbersome format but one that could potentially draw in audiences for its technical marvels. By the '20s, the movies were produced sparingly, often at huge expense, and the subtlety of circus attractions.

The golden age, if one ever really existed, came in the '50s, but it soon fell out of favour with audiences and cinema exhibitors alike. The reasons? Cost, eye strain of audiences, the general headaches of trying to make it work, and an overall lack of ingenuity in the films made with 3D as a component.

When it was tried again in the '80s, with hopes of capitalising on the renewed interest in sci-fi from the likes of 'Star Wars', it was equally troublesome. 1983's 'Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone' was made on a budget of $14.4 million and recouped only $16.5 million at the US box office. 'Return of the Jedi', released a week later, was made on a budget of $32 million and made $309 million in the US and Canada.

One of the big proponents of 3D during this time was the Walt Disney Company, who had set the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to work on making it more commercially viable. Projects like 'Captain EO' were made specifically for Disney theme parks, while competing attractions in Universal Theme Parks included James Cameron and 'T2 3-D: Battle Across Time'.

Even though they had name-recognition directors attached, the charm of 3D was confined to theme parks and very often combined with other effects, such as vibrating seats and in-theatre pyrotechnics. By 1996, 'Captain EO' had run its course while 'T-2 3-D: Battle Across Time' only closed in 2017, although it featured live performers interacting in part with the 3D movie.

It wasn't until 2003, however, that 3D left theme parks and returned to cinemas. That year saw James Cameron once again trying to break 3D to audiences with 'Ghosts of the Abyss', which was made specifically for IMAX 3D theatres and 35mm theatres that were outfitted with the technology. Although made on a budget of $13 million, the box office return was minimal - $28.7 million.

The first commercial success didn't come until 'The Polar Express', directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks in multiple roles. Earnings on 3D screenings compared to regular 2D screenings were 14 times higher. Across 59 IMAX theatres in the US on its opening weekend, it earned an average of $35,593 per screen.

While it was a commercial success, 'The Polar Express' was an expensive movie to make - $165 million, an unprecedented amount for any movie at the time, let alone an animated one. Overall, the movie claimed $313 million across its various iterations and releases. Yet, for all the groundbreaking success, the critical reception to the movie was quite cool; it currently sits at 61 out of 100 on Metacritic and 56% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The commercial and critical breakthrough for 3D didn't come until 2009's James Cameron's 'Avatar'. Nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the movie was acclaimed as the full realisation of its capabilities and commercial potential. The movie was, until very recently, the highest-grossing movie of all time. It was the first movie to cross $2 billion at the box office.

Ten years on, the reality is very different.

In the Republic of Ireland, there are 267 screens capable of showing 3D movies. Of the total box office revenue for 2019 across all formats, 3D screenings accounted for just 2% of revenue. Despite this, movies screened in 2D and 3D accounted for 48% of all box office revenue. In fact, according to Wide Eye Media, 3D screenings tend to cease within the first three weeks of a movie's release, depending on popularity.

What's true in the Irish market is true elsewhere. Worldwide, there are close to 75,000 screens capable of showing 3D. In 2016, 3D accounted for just 20% - $7.8 billion - of the global box office revenue. 'Avatar' made up 70% of its box office revenue from 3D screenings in 2009. In the US, 3D screenings accounted for 21% of total revenue. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 14.1%.

So what happened in those ten years, from 'Avatar' being hailed the future of cinema to the quiet death of 3D?

The short answer is over-saturation. The joke doing the rounds was always that if a studio couldn't make a good movie, they could make it in 3D. Whether this mantra was actual official studio dogma or not is unclear, but one thing's for certain - studios were latching on to the format for dear life.

A common strategy deployed by studios was to upscale movies to 3D in order to shore up potential losses. In some cases, movies that were never at all intended for 3D were given releases with rudimentary 3D effects applied. Likewise, some movies had their releases specifically adjusted to ensure there were more 3D screenings than 2D screenings, thus earning more money per screen on average.

Audiences have more or less been rejecting 3D since the middle of the previous decade. A quick question via Twitter on the last time someone paid for a 3D screening showed up only a handful of recent movies. By and large, people pointed to the likes of 2013's 'Gravity', 2008's 'Up', 2012's 'The Life of Pi', with a couple of exceptions pointing to 'Bumblebee', 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' or 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'. Generally, people will only choose it as a last resort if all other screenings are full. Most people, again from anecdotal sources, would opt for 2D over 3D given the choice between the two.

So who weeps for 3D? Certainly not audiences. At a panel at CineEurope in 2016, Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks Animation and ex-CEO of the Walt Disney Company, declared that when it came to 3D, "we blew it."

"It was a game-changing opportunity for the industry. When you gave them an exceptional film that artistically, creativity embraced and celebrated the uniqueness of that experience, people were happy to pay the premium," Katzenberg stated. His argument was those producers who had taken the low road and "gimmicked" the technology had ultimately cost the industry the goodwill of audiences.

Some would argue that it was always a gimmick, no different from Smell-O-Vision or any other hokey special effect deployed in a cinema for cheap thrills. Yet, for every technological leap in cinema, the initial impact is always dicey at best. In 1928, the reviews for 'The Terror', an all-talkie murder mystery starring May McAvoy and Louise Fazenda, were skeptical of the inclusion of audio. 'The Terror' was one of the very first movies to feature all-talking throughout its runtime.

The writer of the movie, Edgar Wallace, wasn't impressed by the technological advances. In a piece in the New York Times, Wallace commented that he "never thought the talkies would be a serious rival to the stage." In her review, Observer critic CA Lejeune decried the inclusion of talking in movies, arguing that "(we) may deplore limitations of language for the hitherto universal cinema... I cannot think that, once having heard the voice, we shall ever be satisfied with the dumb figures of our favourites again."

It may yet be that the technology still hasn't found the right combination of artistic integrity, convincing storytelling, and an audience willing to accept it. Or it could just be that audiences simply don't care enough about it in the first place. Major studios and filmmakers have largely abandoned 3D, except for a lonely handful.

The next major release for the format is, funnily enough, James Cameron's sequel to 'Avatar'.

Set for release in December 2021, which includes more recent technological advancements in filmmaking such as underwater motion-capture for actors, the movie could potentially be the first to feature autostereoscopic imagery. In plain English, it means 3D without the use of glasses.

At the Vivid Light Festival in Sydney, Australia, Cameron explained his vision. "We need to see the roll-out of these laser projection systems so that we can fully appreciate 3D through glasses in cinemas. Then, we need the roll-out of autostereoscopic screens, large panel displays, where you don't need glasses at all. You have multiple discreet viewing angles and all that sort of thing. Anybody that's geeking out on 3D knows what I'm talking about," he enthuses.

"It's all possible. It's just a question of will it happen or not."