3-D Is Alive and Well
By Tom Houseman
July 30, 2010

It's The Sleep Vikings, the latest Norse rock band to hit #1 on the charts!

I am by no means an expert on Box Office. I’ve been reading this site since 2003, and have accumulated a considerable amount of knowledge on how Box Office works, what types of films will be successful, and what even qualifies as successful in the film industry. Though I doubt I’ll ever be as knowledgeable as some of the writers on this site, I certainly know more than the average bear. One thing I definitely know is that 3-D is alive and well, no matter what anybody says. I try to explain this to people, with varying degrees of success. The story I am about to tell you is about one such attempt, and will hopefully provide you with enough information so that you, too, can convince your friends that 3-D isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Every once in a while, I enjoy inciting racial conflict. Wait, that’s not me, that’s Glen Beck. What I meant to say is that every once in a while, I enjoy posting on comment threads for woefully misguided articles on the Internet. It gives me a chance to flex my brain muscles by poking holes in stupid arguments, and I enjoy reading the vitriol spewed at me by idiots who agree with everything they read without thinking about it. Plus, if you hadn’t picked up on this yet, I enjoy the sense of superiority that comes with knowing more than random people on the Internet. It’s the little things, you know?

So when I found an article titled “Why 3-D is Already Dying,” I cracked my knuckles in the style of a hacker from a bad ‘90s movie, and got prepared to do some enlightening. As I expected, the article was mostly nonsense, because anybody who looks at the numbers will realize that in no way is 3-D dying. I responded, as respectfully as I could, by questioning the writer’s mental capacity, his upbringing, his hygiene, and the sexual orientation of his children. I tried to throw in a few points about his argument in there too.

I figured that would be the end of it, but much to my surprise, within a few hours I received a Facebook message from a fellow named Dustin. Considering I don’t know anybody named Dustin (it’s sort of a silly name, don’t you think?), and the title of the message was “Read that 3D article again,” I realized that this person had found me on Facebook to personally address the arguments I had made. I was almost proud, in addition to being a little creeped out. The message is as follows:

“You have no clue what you're talking about. 3D box office revenues are in steady decline, and the writer offers up valid points for why that is happening. Any idiot can tell you that the format is beginning to fade already, and for four main reasons...

1. It's too expensive.
2. The 3D effects are either gimmicky or poorly utilized.
3. The movies themselves are mediocre or terrible.
4. It's too expensive.

Avatar made loads of cash because it was a great film that used 3D perfectly. The studios think that this new wave of 3D will equal more money, but they are forgetting that they still need a GOOD MOVIE FIRST. 3D is a fad dude, and it's wearing out.”

Now, I’m very often told that I have no clue what I’m talking about, and very often, that’s accurate, so I tend to defend myself when it isn’t. I had no interest in trying to convince another Avatar fan why that movie is garbage, so I just decided to focus on the issues he had concerning the points I had made. I took this as a perfect opportunity to expound in detail on why every 3-D alarmist is wrong, stupid, and a worse person than I am. I responded, in length, with the message below:

Dustin, thank you for responding to my post. I feel that civil, reasonable discourse on the internet is incredibly difficult in a world of flame wars and 140 character responses, and I feel like this is a far superior way to actually discuss these issues.

I think it’s interesting that you titled your message “read that 3D article again” considering that at no point in your message did you reference anything that Mr. Roane wrote in his article. All you did was restate the same buzz points that everybody makes to claim that any aspect of pop culture they don’t like is dying. Also, this is kind of awkward, but did you realize that points one and four are actually the… oh, I see what you did there. Clever, Dustin.

My original response to Mr. Roane’s article was fairly brief, because I doubted anyone would want to read an essay in the comments section of a website, but I’m glad that your response has given me an excuse to write a more lengthy dissertation on why, sadly, 3-D is not dying. That’s right, I hate 3-D just as much as you and Mr. Roane do. If I had my say, 3-D would die along with Zack Snyder movies, all things Twilight related, and the cast of Jersey Shore. But just because I hate them doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere.

So I decided to reread Mr. Roane’s article, as you advised, and I think that while he does slip in the occasional piece of insight, most likely by accident, I stand by my initial assessment that it is “statistic-manipulating, conclusion-leaping, reality-ignoring garbage.” Statistics involving money are very easy to manipulate, especially with numbers as big and confusing as box office receipts. Even people who pay attention get confused, as evidenced by the debate when Superman Returns was released concerning whether it was a flop or a hit. So while Mr. Roane may know what he’s talking about when it comes to the relationship between business and politics in Europe and the Middle East (and going to kitroane.com proves his expansive knowledge), his grasp on domestic box-office in the film industry is shaky… at best.

So I’ve decided to go through Mr. Roane’s article and point out a number of specious, fallacious, and just plain biased evidence that he presents in favor of his argument…

"While premium pricing for 3-D movie tickets has lined studio pockets over the last few years, it hasn't translated into throngs of new moviegoers at the theater. Movie admissions have been in a tailspin for more than a decade, and despite a bump in 2009, new data shows the public is cooling to the offerings at their local theater yet again.”

Mr. Roane’s first argument that 3-D is “dying” is that the new technology has not single-handedly revitalized the film industry? That seems like a lot to ask, in addition to making no sense. Ticket sales have fallen steadily because there are other ways for people to spend there time, between TV, video games, and the Internet. why is he placing the blame on 3-D right now? Oh, right, because it fits his narrative.

“Hollywood.com's box-office survey shows attendance down by 2.2% through July 18th of this year when compared with 2009. Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the busiest four days of the year, drew the smallest audience in 17 years.”

A number of movies have underperformed at the box-office so far this year, but almost none of them are the ones released in 3-D. Robin Hood, MacGruber, Knight and Day, and The A-Team were all in the range of disappointment to flop, while Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans vastly exceeded expectations. Was it because those were cinematic masterpieces? They both got critically slammed, actually, but they were big event movies that everyone saw, and most people saw them in 3-D. I’ll talk about the relationship between film quality and box-office in a second (Spoiler Alert: there is none).

I’d also like to point out that Mr. Roane mentions Memorial Day weekend as being particularly bad for the film industry. What films were released that weekend? Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Sex and the City 2, neither of which were released in 3-D.

"To see a $4 premium on 3-D pricing is a pretty gigantic move for pricing," says Richard Greenfield, BTIG's media analyst. "Despite the staggering success of some blockbuster films, attendance is down year to date. That is clearly not a good sign."

Every year theaters increase the price of tickets. Every year journalists write about how audiences are about to revolt Russian Proletariat style… and yet they never do. Studio execs are very smart. They wouldn’t charge so much for 3-D if they didn’t have significant amounts of proof that they could get away with it (see the box-office results for Journey to the Center of the Earth, My Bloody Valentine, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans and others for said proof). Movies are still less expensive than most other forms of entertainment, except for, like, reading. And seriously, who reads anymore?

The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan's epic flop at the box office, has become something of a poster child for all the expensive over-hyped promise of 3-D technology.

We’ve already talked about this one, but I’ll go into more detail. The Last Airbender currently has a little more than $124 million at the domestic box office. Against a budget of $150 million, that’s not a great number, but I would call it at most a mild disappointment. This isn’t even getting into foreign box-office, where the film hasn’t been fully released yet, and where it would expect to make most of its money. Anybody who's calling it a flop (especially an epic flop) is either stupid or pushing an agenda. Or, as is the case with this article, both. It’s interesting that Mr. Roane references reviews of the film, rather than any statistical analysis, to prove his point. Yes Roger Ebert’s review of The Last Airbender was scathing, but is utterly irrelevant to the success of the film.

Critics saying a movie sucks generally doesn’t keep it from making money. In fact, a movie actually sucking doesn’t keep it from making money. Movies like Transformers, Twilight, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and Transformers (see what I did there?) have all gotten critically roasted but made boatloads of cash. Do you know what Ebert called the best movie of the decade? Synecdoche, New York. Know how much that made? Just over $3 million. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do, as it is truly incredible.) Your argument that studios need to make good movies to make money is sweet and naïve, like Bambi trying to walk on ice, but sadly and woefully inaccurate.

If price and quality concerns didn't spell enough trouble for the 3-D movement, Consumer Reports how the brain's attempt to make sense of such 3-D images can cause headaches and eyestrain in people with certain vision problems. That's not exactly what a parent wants to hear while being dragged into yet another 3-D showing of Toy Story 3.

This argument came out of left field, and it’s a fun one. It’s true that parents always do what’s best for their children. That’s why McDonald’s is declaring bankruptcy and Whole Foods is the most successful - wait, that doesn’t sound right. Hmmm…

As Hollywood.com's box-office stats show, despite declining movie consumption this year, studios are still making out like bandits, with high 3-D ticket prices helping to wrangle a 4% hike in running gross receipts… But the revenue increase isn't a ringing endorsement of the technology by consumers.

Oh man, I hate it when that happens! When you start to talk about the actual facts and they completely refute the argument you’ve been making. Bummer. Better go back to that “good movies make money” argument again. That’s a guaranteed winner.

(David Mumpower, The Yoda to my Luke Skywalker, has this to add: “This is the crux of the discussion. Widgets sold is only interesting to a certain extent. At the end of the day, increasing profit is the bottom line. Any time a supplier has the ability to sell the same item for more without jeopardizing the bottom line, it's a serendipitous turn of events. The fact that we're up any at all right now given the lackluster quality of 2010 summer titles is 1) a tribute to Avatar and 2) a remarkable accomplishment for arguably the worst crop of films since Stealth/The Island year, 2005.” I would have rewritten that and taken credit for it but, come on, he uses the word widgets. You just don’t mess with that.)

While 3-D tickets accounted for 82% of the box-office revenue for Avatar when it was released in December, Universal's July 9th opening of Despicable Me took in an estimated 45% of its revenue from 3-D screens. It follows a pretty steady decline seen by other hot 3-D releases from Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, to Tim Burton's remake of Alice in Wonderland.

Again, this is a matter of manipulating statistics to prove a point. Typically, no, animated films don’t make as significant a portion of their revenue from 3-D screens as live-action films do. Also, most importantly, films that are marketed on the backs of their visuals will make more from 3-D than those that aren’t. Case in point, Avatar, Alice and Titans earned enormous amounts from 3-D while Shrek 4 and Despicable Me made only sizable amounts. Mr. Roane is trying to make the numbers fit his argument, but I’m pretty sure that working that hard causes headaches and eyestrain in people with certain vision problems.

Most interesting, according to Greenfield, is that in some cases movies with a wider release on 3-D screens are doing worse in terms of 3-D revenue than those that had more limited 3-D screen penetration. Shrek Forever After, for instance, brought in a smaller percentage of revenue from 3-D screens than How to Train a Dragon, despite being released on about 200 more 3-D screens.

This Greenfield fellow has a strange idea of what’s considered “interesting.” This goes back to the argument that I just made. How to Train Your Dragon marketed itself as a visual extravaganza akin to Avatar, while Shrek Forever After marketed itself as a cute, clever comedy akin to Shrek the Third. Having seen neither of these films I can’t attest to the accuracy of those statements, but which would you rather see in 3-D? The visual extravaganza or the cute, clever comedy? Also, Shrek Forever After was released on over 300 more screens than How to Train Your Dragon overall, but that would go in the department of facts that prove this article is completely wrong, and as such is dutifully ignored along with the mountain of others.

I know that 3-D is not always going to be the insane cash cow that it has been so far. I would equate it to the CGI animation trend. At first there were only a few CGI films, and it was new and exciting, so everybody wanted to go see it. Then all of the studios started to get in, and more and more products clogged the market. The Ant Bully was the first official CGI bomb, and there will someday be its 3-D equivalent, but The Last Airbender certainly wasn’t it. Even when that day arrives, 3-D won’t go anywhere. The pool of films released in 3-D might shrink, but it will still be significant, and it will still account for a significant source of revenue for the studios. No matter what you, Ebert, or Mr. Roane says, 3-D is alive and well and living in our movie theaters.

I hope that you’re still reading this, and that you understand the arguments that I’m making, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of them. If you have any more comments to make, I would love to hear them.