Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2010: #8
Simply Putting 3D in the Title Isn't Enough
By David Mumpower
January 27, 2011

It was this picture or a piranha eating some dude's...well, you know. I think we chose correctly.

Two years ago in this forum, I mentioned that with the impending onslaught of RealD releases, a saturation point would be reached sooner than later. I am not one of those doomsday types who spent the body of 2010 shouting “DEAD FORMAT! DEAD FORMAT!” In point of fact, I picked fights with those people more often than I should have. The reason why is simple. With the sheer volume of money being directed to the production of 3D televisions, Blu-Ray players and other accompanying electronics devices, the reality is that this phenomenon is an object in motion that will stay in motion for an indefinite period. This is the shiny new toy of moviemaking; as such, it won’t be going away for a while. Then again, just because consumers have a shiny new toy does not mean that they will play with it. Several 3D releases in 2010 emphatically demonstrated this.

Let’s work backward in this discussion and focus upon the effect before taking up the issue of causality. All of these films have something in common: Piranha 3D, Saw 3D, Step Up 3D, Alpha and Omega, Legend of the Guardians: The Owns of Ga’Hoole, My Soul to Take, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Gulliver’s Travels. You are probably thinking to yourself that these are all movies and judging by the “3D” in some of the titles, 3D ones at that. What almost certainly has you confused is the presence of Alpha and Omega, which may or may not be a real thing.

To your and my surprise (okay, only yours…I’ve seen this movie), Alpha and Omega not only exists but was a 2010 3D release. That’s right. People paid extra per ticket in order to watch this movie of animated wolf mating. Therein lies the problem. Someone somewhere made the determination that what people will pay to watch is a three dimensional representation of the mating habits of wolves. I’m guessing that person is a lifetime subscriber to National Geographic and that said person has had quite the streak of failed relationships that ended with him being called “sick” and/or “a pervert”. Also, that person probably made a lot more money than you did last year. Stuff like this is why so many of us turn to heavy drinking. But I digress.

The purpose of the above is to reinforce the lemming mentality that too frequently drives the industry. If a movie about dinosaurs and one nut-chasing saber-toothed squirrel can make money, derivations of this concept such as the above start to make sense. People convince themselves that while the concept of tribal wolves falling in love sounds silly on each and every level possible, they are the ones to make this into a winning project. And yes, it sounds crazy, even to them. Since William Goldman gave the body of Hollywood a Get Out of Jail free card with the mantra, “Nobody knows anything”, however, everyone decides that the wolf mating concept is worth a shot. Then, they try to tell themselves that Justin Long is just the star they need to do the voice. It sounds so completely crazy right up until we realize that a movie about a nerd Viking earned half a billion dollars last year, meaning that the people who did the nerd wolf movie weren’t that far off the mark. Okay, yes they were, but you catch my drift.

As everyone made the same turn to 3D along with the lucrative 3D movie tickets that came with it, not enough people bothered to ask whether they were making a distinct enough product to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. The end result is the same as what we witness with every other part of the economy. The strong feast while the weak absorb unwarranted Internet cheap shots (my apologies to the true believers who made Alpha and Omega 3D).

In 2010, this meant that while Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland became the top two movies of the year, becoming the sixth and seventh movies to gross a billion dollars in global revenue, several 3D releases never attained notice. To wit, Piranha 3D earned $25 million domestically, Step Up 3D earned $42.3 million (down over $15 million from the second Step Up title), and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole 3D earned only $55.7 million against a $100 million production budget. Alpha and Omega’s $25.1 million domestic take against a $20 million production budget isn’t looking quite so bad now, is it?

Even sequels to established properties were not above the fray. Saw 3D behaved similarly to Step Up 3D, failing to match the box office of almost all previous titles in the franchise in spite of the higher ticket pricing that comes with a 3D release. Shrek Forever After is not included in the discussion of summer 2010 box office disappointments, but let’s be realistic here. Shrek the Third earned $322.7 million; its follow-up managed only $238.7 million domestically. In terms of global take, there is only a $50 million gap between the two films, which is why it was deemed neither a success nor a total flop. Relative to domestic take, though, the fourth Shrek film had less than 75% of the box office of its immediate predecessor in spite of inflated ticket pricing.

The other two titles listed above, My Soul to Take and Gulliver’s Travels, are small scale and large scale demonstrations of the potential trappings of thoughtless 3D productions. The horror film shot for $25 million couldn’t even tally $15 million domestically, a far cry from a similarly themed title from the previous year, Drag Me to Hell. Wes Craven is no Sam Raimi at the box office, but the difference should never be that dramatic for their horror flicks. And Gulliver’s Travels is simply cringe inducing when we run the numbers. A movie that cost $112 million to produce has earned barely $40 million domestically and is almost out of theaters. Yes, it has crossed $100 million abroad, but that’s not nearly enough to put it in the black.

What happened to these films? That is the logical question. The answer is that there can be too much of a good thing, and that presupposes that the existence of 3D IS a good thing. From the introduction of Chicken Little into the marketplace until the release of Avatar at the end of 2009, a total of 25 major digital 3D releases were released. In calendar 2010 alone, 23 3D titles received distribution, 24 if we count the re-release of Avatar itself. In that same time frame, the average price of a movie ticket increased from $6.41 to $7.85. And let’s be honest about the fact that you would be hard pressed to find a theater that will sell you a ticket in digital 3D for $7.85. At my local theater, the cost is about $13.50 and if you’re in an even larger metropolitan area, you are probably paying $3-$5 more than that.

If every ticket to 3D movies has effectively doubled in price in five years and there is one such movie released into theaters every other weekend (24 titles in 52 weekends is roughly that pace), consumers would face hard decisions in any situation. The fact that the economy crashed right at the start of production of many of these titles only magnifies the issue. If people are going to pay a special surcharge in order to watch a movie, they expect the movie to be just that special.

This is how Clash of the Titans and Avatar ruined 3D for everyone else. The latter film’s special effects are so dazzling, so truly revolutionary, that almost everything that followed in its wake seems relatively ordinary in comparison. Sure, there are some exceptions. Movie goers were awed by the flying sequences in How to Train Your Dragon, which is how a $43.7 million opener in this day and age could earn $217.6 million during its domestic run. And even some of the failures on this list at least attempted to make their visuals worthwhile. BOP’s Dan Krovich maintains that the only movie he saw in 2010 that effectively utilized three dimensional visuals was Step Up 3D. I question whether flying sweat needs a third dimension, but he is steadfast on the subject matter. Resident Evil: Afterlife was smart enough to use James Cameron’s Avatar technology, thereby becoming the first and to date only production team to realize that if you cannot beat his 3D, lease it from him.

Clash of the Titans, on the other hand, went an entirely different way. By now, you are probably well aware of its cardinal sin. This movie’s producers wanted 3D money without the time and effort required to make a quality 3D movie. They chose instead to retrofit the camera work after principal photography had been completed. The end result was a nightmare with movie goers walked out of theaters loudly uttering swears about how badly they were ripped off. The worst part is that they were right. There is little difference between doing this and sticking your finger in your pocket and telling somebody you have a gun and then need to hand you another $5. It’s wrong, everyone knows it’s wrong and yet Warner Bros. did it anyway.

The end result of the above is that consumers started 2010 on a 3D high. Avatar had shown them the promise of a better movie tomorrow. They all flocked to Alice in Wonderland in anticipation of similar glory, instead receiving a mediocre movie with some good but not great visual effects, certainly nothing on the level of James Cameron. Disney didn’t care in that 70% of their sales for the movie came from 3D tickets. A couple of months later, Clash of the Titans flat out robbed consumers by pretending to be 3D when it wasn’t. Because of this, would-be movie goers were jaded by the quality of a still unmatched set of movie visuals and the lingering aftertaste of a couple of unsatisfactory 3D movie going experiences. As the year progressed, more and more people carefully considered whether a movie seemed shiny enough to justify the added cost of 3D. For most of the titles listed here, the answer was unfortunately no. And the brutal reality is that a lot of the damage was self-inflicted by decision makers within the industry yet many of the victims of said behavior were not the ones who committed the crimes.

2010 saw a strange phenomenon wherein the producers of the Resident Evil franchise were more protective of the 3D movie-going experience than Warner Bros. was with a $125 million tent-pole production. This predatory business practice has to change before people decide that going to the movies is simply no longer worth the penalty cost for a 3D ticket. In the interim, we will continue to spot the trend of people specifically ignoring a release’s 3D option in favor of the cheaper option, thereby negating the reason the extra money is spent to produce a 3D film in the first place.