The Decline of the Stereoscopic Cinema
My concern in these columns has been the stereoscopic cinema, and secondarily stereoscopic television. (By “television,” I mean that device that sits in your home that plays Internet protocol TV, cable channels with video on demand, discs, and home movies and —oh yes! terrestrial broadcasting.) I’m looking at the August 4th Display Daily, which is sent to professionals in the display industry. It’s published by Insight Media, and this latest column called “Pushing Back Toward the Ditch” was written by the boss of Insight Media, Chris Chinnock, a paragon of conventional wisdom. In the past month there has been a significant pushback in the press with regard to the stereoscopic medium, and I have to hand it to Chris for summarizing the current print media climate and for bringing me out of hibernation, since this is the first blog (gotta love a word that rhymes with smog and hog) I’ve written in a month.
What is happening in the press at this moment vis a vis 3-D movies is an excellent example of reasoning to a firmly held belief. Conventional minds have been waiting to pounce on 3-D movies and at last, here it is — a good moment given a couple of so-so performing movies in the last few months. They were not good movies and lo and behold, color, sound, and widescreen didn’t help them. Oddly there are no outraged critics rising up to ban color, sound, and widescreen.
Chris calls to mind “crossing the chasm,” a well-known concept about the introduction of new technologies. The idea is that after the initial acceptance of a new technology by the early adapters there is going to be a chasm that the technology or product in fact, somehow has to cross to find the later adopters and full market acceptance. Chris is applying this idea to the entire stereoscopic display industry but it’s usually applied to the efforts of a single pioneering company. This is an interesting point but with thousands of theaters installed with 3-D capability, scores of movies about to be released, and hundreds of millions being spent on the technology and promotion of 3-D TV, I’d say the bridge over the chasm has been all but crossed.
Chris also quotes the New York Times headline that read “Resistance Forms Against Hollywood’s 3-D Push,” and he cites a number of directors, including Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon who oppose the medium. These are some first-rate commercial directors, who according to the Times do not want to make their movies in 3-D, feeling that the studios are mostly concerned with making money and they don’t want to use 3-D for aesthetic reasons; they just want to do it for profit. That should have been the subject of the New York Times headline: Studios Want to Profit from 3-D. If you had to rank faux revelations on a scale of 1 to 10 you’d have to give this one an 11 on the Spinal Tap Scale.
Shakespeare was a commercial playwright, and if his plays didn’t make money he wouldn’t have been able to send money back to Anne Hathaway in Stratford so she could buy her second best bed. Moreover, these directors, as good as they are, aren’t Akira Kurosawa. Is this the group to assert that the studios are overly concerned with money? Can it be that they don’t like 3-D because it will not allow them to fulfill their visions of collapsing cities, werewolf transformations, mutant zombies, vampire blood sucking, and exploding spaceships? (It was a different Chris Nolan I heard after a screening of Inception who was open minded about the use of 3-D.)
Next Chris Chinook talks about the fact that 3-D ticket prices are higher than 2D prices, and that has to be a disincentive for people to go to the movies. A possible incentive would be to pay people to go to the movies, but that hasn’t come up in the discussion. The conventional mind is not questioning that people are willing to fork over the extra bucks to see an IMAX movie. Why isn’t there a pushback, why isn’t the press questioning IMAX ticket prices – a complaint that could be made for both 2D and 3-D IMAX? The press is focused on ticket prices for conventional 3-D movies and I think one reason for that is that much of 3-D projection in neighborhood cinemas is too dark. In my opinion Dolby, XpanD, and Master Image systems can only project decently bright images on smaller screens, say 35 feet or under. And very frequently exhibitors use the systems in auditoria that have screens that are too large for the product they have installed.
The only single projector system I know of that can produce decent brightness levels on just about any size screen is the RealD XL system. (I should tell you that I helped develop this product.) In terms of viewer comfort the RealD system (and MasterImage and IMAX), using lightweight single-use eyewear, are far more pleasant and appealing to use than klutzy Dolby or XpanD eyewear. If 3-D is projected well, and the eyewear are comfortable, then it is a premium experience and perhaps people won’t balk at paying the extra money.
There have also been articles in the press lately talking about the decline in 3-D attendance. A short time ago it was not uncommon for a 3-D movie to produce a disproportionate share of revenue on a per-theater basis but of late that has not held up. One of the reasons that it’s no longer true is that there are still not enough 3-D theaters. Several years ago there was only one 3-D movie in release at a time, and sometimes weeks or months between 3-D movies. Now there are two or three 3-D movies in release, so the effective total number of theaters at any moment may not be any greater, and there are theaters that have to pull shows that should be holding but are forced to leave before they’ve fulfilled their 3-D profit potential. And not to forget, not every 3-D movie is going to be a good movie.
Next Chris brings up the concept that all movies aren’t going to profit from 3-D. This is another piece of conventional wisdom — that 3-D is just not meant for all subjects. For whatever reason My Dinner with Andre is frequently cited: “Would you make a 3-D movie of My Dinner with Andre?” Let me ask those who raise the issue, why don’t you ask the same question about color for My Dinner with Andre? My Dinner with Andre didn’t need to be in color. Maybe Andre should have been shot silent and released with title cards.
While there is a business rationale there is no esthetic rationale for making virtually every movie in color (or scope or wide-screen for that matter). Cinematographers and directors know this, and they often use techniques to make their movies more or less monochromatic. But if the public expects color, and the movie business is a responsive business, it has to give them color.
Are the critics of 3-D movies conservatives, trying to uphold the status quo, or are they reactionaries, trying to return us to the prior state of flatitude? Perhaps they are afraid that there are compelling parallels between the present transition and that which occurred in the late twenties and early thirties with sound. The transition to sound profoundly changed the cinema from one of pantomime and reading title cards into a cinema that was more nearly like stage plays. The transition to 3-D will be far less disruptive. Actors won’t lose their jobs because they don’t look good in 3-D. I predict that Nick Cage’s wigs will continue to distract in 3-D.
And speaking of Mr. Cage, I’ve just seen an ad for his soon-to-be-released Drive Angry 3-D, which read: “Shot in 3-D.” This a marketing approach that is an attempt to make a distinction between a movie that was shot in 3-D (good) and one that was shot in 2D and converted (bad). That’s because recent conversions have not been successful according to the public and the press. I have not seen either of the recent conversion jobs that were decried, Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender. I was about to see Clash in 3-D with my boys, Noah and Jonah, 14 and 16, but when we got to the theater they wanted to see the 2D version. They had read the on-line complaints about Titans’ conversion. “Dad, don’t make us go see this.” I said: “Boys, it’s my business. I’d like to see what it looks like.” But they prevailed because it was vacation, and sometimes the kids are right. I’ve heard so many complaints about these movies that I’ll simply accept that the complaints have merit.
On the other hand, an excellent example of conversion was G-Force, which I thought was a fun and ridiculous movie. I happen to like guinea pigs, and I’m a sucker for furry little talking animals in 3-D. Who isn’t? Just ask my dogs.