There are those pessimistic people (perhaps you know someone?) waiting for the first spectacular 3-D flop. It’s possible they may not have to wait long. Major 3-D releases are fighting for screen space. 3-D has become a strategic play in the battle for box office. And studios are willing to cut corners on quality just to get the 3-D mark.
The Easter holiday 3-D screen crunch has newspapers beside themselves. While Disney’s Alice in Wonderland continues to pull in box office, Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon didn’t fare so well. The movie pulled in only 2/3 of its expected opening weekend box office, pushing Dreamwork’s stock down by 9.2%. But that may be nothing next to Warner’s Clash of the Titans. While previews indicate that Clash has the ability to pull in the audience, it was never intended to be a 3-D movie. At the last moment, Warner decided to convert it to 3-D, relying on the lowest bidder, Prime Focus, to do the job. Clips shown at ShoWest are said to not look so great. Alice in Wonderland has its 3-D problems, as well. But while Alice doesn’t strain eyes, it is likely that Clash will.
Will 3-D quality have anything to do with box office? That remains to be seen. For Dragon, which has great reviews, and which opened on nearly the same number of 3-D screens as Alice, the movie probably would have done better had it had the benefit of a long 3-D run. (Alice opened on 2251 3-D screens, while Dragon opened on 2178 3-D screens, taking into account IMAX.) Perhaps that was the strategy at Warner. With the advantage of opening after Dragon, Clash can knock its competition off of highly valued 3-D screens. Yikes, 3-D warfare at the movies.
No doubt Warner was also motivated by the lure of the 3-D premium. Exhibitors scoffed at Katzenberg a few years ago for suggesting that ticket premiums would grow to $5, but an article in Variety this month reported exhibitors in Los Angeles and New York setting their ticket premiums at just that. With studios getting around 50%, it’s no wonder that they’re driven to produce more 3-D. For Warner, what was there to lose by converting to 3-D, knocking out the competition, and collecting the ticket premium?
Unfortunately, there could be a lot to lose for 3-D. It is easy to cut corners when converting from 2-D to 3-D, and while the audience may notice something wrong, the artifacts require training to identify and put one’s finger on. Conversion shortcuts include not painting the revealed backgrounds, not taking time to bring the right depth perspective to objects throughout the scene, and using cheap (and fast to implement) tricks to give a 3-D effect. All of which leads to visual discomfort and eye strain. If audiences walk away disillusioned over 3-D, it could be very damaging.
Fortunately, not everyone believes this. One analyst in a Wall Street Journal interview predicts that 3-D is here to stay, simply because audiences have seen enough good 3-D and won’t want to consume their movies any other way. Let’s hope so, and hope the studios have the will to do it right.