From roughly 1982 to 2007, the motion-picture industry was transformed financially by the advent of the VCR and the DVD—new technologies that created gigantic new markets for renting and owning Hollywood’s wares. Previously, Hollywood could only make its money on theater tickets and sales to television (and later, cable). The new machines gave the movie industry two more opportunities to sell the same product. Revenues nearly doubled.
And then the cash machine broke. The VCR died out. The gimmick of repackaging desirable older movies for purchase on DVD for a second or third time—by offering supposedly never-before-seen material and special features and new boxes and various bells and whistles—ran out of steam with consumers, who began to feel like they were being had, which they were. In any case, there wasn’t much left in the Hollywood library to reissue and exploit, and that left only new stuff for sale. And Hollywood’s theatrical fare also stalled out: Ticket sales have been basically flat for a decade, even as the population has grown substantially.
Desperate and fearful, Hollywood seized on a new technology that would change everything: 3-D. The vast improvements in special effects, optics, and computerized techniques had, we were told, made this once-risible process something transformative. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who had singlehandedly saved animation in the 1980s while working at Disney, described 3-D in 2007 as “the single most revolutionary change since color pictures.”
Theater owners began to find they could charge a premium for tickets to 3-D, since they had to supply glasses and pay for new equipment. When Disney released a horribly mediocre animated picture called Meet the Robinsons in 3-D at about a sixth of the theaters showing the film, Business Week noted at the time, “It generated nearly three times as much business on the 3D screens.” And so it went for a few years. Movies that would have done well without 3-D, like Pixar’s Up, did well with it, too, and audiences seemed willing to pay the extra few bucks for the gimmick.
It was not until the release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 that the supposed 3-D revolution was really put to the test. This was the first film conceived from its first frame to its last in three dimensions, and its creation was not only an astounding technological feat, but—at a cost of something like $400 million—one of the most expensive experiments in the history of capitalism. And it paid off in spades. Avatar is by leagues the most financially successful movie ever made, with $2.78 billion at the global box office. A few months later, Tim Burton’s dark version of Alice in Wonderland was released in 3-D, although it was not designed as a 3-D picture the way Avatar was, and it became only the sixth movie in history to make more than $1 billion worldwide.
These two films seemed to justify Katzenberg’s promise beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. But now we read that, only a year later, 3-D has become a grave financial disappointment. Two major releases in May, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the second Kung Fu Panda, made only about 45 percent of their money in their opening weekend in 3-D screenings. The studios that made them expected 60 percent or more.
The failure of 3-D to perform at the box office has been consistent since the Avatar/Alice twofer. Advocates for the form, like Cameron and Katzenberg, fear that the poorly handled 3-D on films like Clash of the Titans or Nicolas Cage’s Drive Angry is what has soured some audiences, and they hope and expect that when Steven Spielberg’s 3-D version of the Belgian comic book Tintin arrives at Christmas, it will spark enthusiasm anew. According to Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply of the New York Times, “3-D has provided an enormous boost to the strongest films, including Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, but has actually undercut middling movies that are trying to milk the format for extra dollars.”
But I wonder. What if, in fact, Avatar is the reason that 3-D is failing? What if, over time, this giant advertisement for the virtues of 3-D simply hasn’t worn all that well on the audiences that flocked to it? What if the miserable experience of seeing Alice in Wonderland, which is spectacularly lousy, delivered the coup de grâce rather than opened people’s eyes to the glory of the new form?