3D fatigue

Tom Dickson (left) and Brenton Byrd watch "Green Lantern" in 3D at the Rotunda Cinemas in North Baltimore. (Gene Sweney)

Debora Bell would be glad "if 3-D went away."

The Rockville printer is just the kind of filmgoer Hollywood wants to keep happy. Her family goes to movies every week. They get to the first screenings they can, usually at the 3-D-equipped AMC Columbia or Cinemark in Arundel Mills.

But they may travel from their home in Columbia to North Baltimore's Senator for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," because the Senator is showing it "flat" — and they don't want to see it in 3-D.

In the past six weeks, they've gone to "Thor," "X-Men: First Class," and "Green Lantern" in 3-D and in 2-D. "We preferred all of them in regular," she said.

And Hollywood fears that more filmgoers are agreeing with her.

Brandon Gray, founder-editor of boxofficemojo.com, has been tracking a sudden decrease in 3-D business this season. He calls it "alarming."

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Kung Fu Panda 2" — entries in wildly successful franchises — and "Green Lantern" — the start of a new superhero series — didn't draw 3-D audiences to theaters in anywhere near hoped-for numbers.

Screens with 3D provided 85 percent of the gross for "Avatar." The pirates and panda sequels and "Green Lantern" — even in their own opening weekends — delivered percentages in the 40s.

Gray thought 3-D was a fad from the get-go. He said, "It's always been about things coming out of the screen at you," and any talk of its capacity to "add depth to the scene" is "pretentious, because everything else about 3-D is so distracting. We need to drop the pretensions and be more realistic about its appeal, which is more of a theme-park variety."

But some great entertainer-directors have thrown their clout behind 3-D, including Steven Spielberg with "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Universe" and Peter Jackson with "The Hobbit." Even Martin Scorsese has come on-board with "Hugo Cabret."

Veteran filmmakers like Martha Coolidge think 3-D's ultimate powers have yet to be tapped.

"It could help bring back the adventure/romance/spectacle," Coolidge said. "Woody Allen, who like everyone is struggling with budgets these days, just did 'Midnight in Paris,' which is funny, romantic and takes you back to two major glorious periods of history. … But it would have been spectacular in 3-D, and maybe even more believable and emotional."

Despite skyrocketing ticket prices and a slew of lackluster releases, the 3-D imprimatur still woos fans who swear by the format's ability to immerse them in a visual environment.

And ESPN intends to keep promoting 3-D TV heavily. Bryan Burns, the company's vice president for strategic planning, said "Seven or eight years ago, when high-definition TV hit the speed lane, I thought sports on TV couldn't get any better. I was wrong."

But critics and enthusiasts agree that 3-D is at a crossroads.

Gray said that we'll soon discover whether the 3-D audience has reached a plateau, or "the format is being purely and simply rejected."

He also said that there's a third option.

If "Cars 2," which opened Friday, and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which opens Wednesday, perform spectacularly well in 3-D, it might indicate that people are "reserving their 3-D dollars for big events."

No one's predicting that 3-D will fade from the scene any time soon. For many filmgoers it's still a novelty.