By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun
6:59 PM EDT, June 24, 2011
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.
Devotees of 3-D often point to "Clash of the Titans" — one of many 2-D films converted to 3-D artificially, after filming — as a rip-off. But for Kim Yates of Owings Mills, who doesn't see many 3-D movies, "it was awesome. It reminded me of the 3-D movies I saw as a kid, and how much fun I had putting on the glasses. The color, the clarity, were spectacular."
Yates said she's ready to pay extra money for 3-D movies — which these days means shelling out three to five more bucks.
So are the fans thronging for 3-D at Ira Miller's Rotunda Cinemas in North Baltimore. Since Miller started operating a 3-D screen on May 4, he's played "Thor," "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Green Lantern" — and each has been a success for him.
Miller, whose experience includes a 15-year stint as vice president of marketing, operations and exhibitor relations for MGM, thinks that "the 3-D really helped."
Gray viewed "Green Lantern" as a major 3-D disappointment. Miller asked, "If 'Green Lantern' were not in 3-D, who knows if it would have done $53 million? I think the 3-D added 20 million to that opening weekend."
Gray said that 3-D was an innovation no-one in the audience was begging for — that the big Hollywood studios have foisted it on the public to distract them from the slipshod storytelling and hackneyed formulae of contemporary moviemaking.
But even people who agree with Gray's assessment of the studios acknowledge that gimmicks can take on lives of their own.
Dea Gill, a frequent moviegoer from Arnold, outside Annapolis, said that when she saw "Avatar" in 3-D, it exploded her sense of the possibilities of movies. She felt that the 3-D process "really changed the experience in the theater, because it was like the action was right there, jumping off the screen, right in your face."
Miller installed 3-D at the Rotunda because customers who felt like Gill wouldn't stop asking him, "When are you going to get 3-D?" He figured that he'd start losing business if he didn't get it — and now, instead of holding his own, he's expanding his audience.
The Rotunda's 3-D screen has given all its cinemas a bump up. They did better business on Memorial Day weekend this year than they did in the previous two Memorial Days combined. Though he added a small third theater last fall, Miller gives 3-D top credit for the uptick.
To Adam Birnbaum, who books the Charles and the Senator, there's no question that "for exhibitors running commercial films, it's an absolute necessity to have 3-D and digital at your disposal." He admits that the Senator "is being affected negatively" by the theater's current lack of it.
But he also says that audiences are "pushing back" against the studios' insistence on ramming 3-D down their throats — or into their eye sockets — as the only way to see movies that make selling-points of sweep and scope.
Birnbaum hopes that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" will prove the executives wrong.
"People have grown up seeing the Potter films in a standard, flat 2-D format" Birnbaum said — and not just at the Senator, where watching new entries in J.K. Rowling's saga has been a decade-long tradition for many Baltimore families.
"I've talked to a couple of theater owners who say that rabid fans have been asking them whether it will be released in 2-D," Birnbaum said. "When movies are trumpeted as 3-D spectacles, people feel they have to see them in that format. But 'Potter' may be different."
So far, audiences have yet to embrace 3-D the way they did other technological breakthroughs, such as color, widescreen and stereo.
Former CEO of 3ality Digital, Sandy Climan, said 18 months ago that audiences would acquire the right comfort level for 3D only if it became "part of the entertainment ecosphere on a recurring basis. It has to come through your TV or computer screen."
That hasn't happened, even after the typhoon of promotions for ESPN's broadcast of the World Cup.
In 2010, Kelly Gould, director of broadcast services at GKV, a Baltimore communications firm, thought the World Cup created "a new awareness of 3-D." But she frankly said last week, "I have no interest in 3-D TV. I'd rather watch well-written, well-produced shows than shows that rely on 3-D or trickery."
"It's a long way from becoming the next big thing for the mainstream TV viewing experience," said Adam Thomas of Informa, a London-based industry-analysis service. Thomas and his colleagues "expect that [only] 44 percent of American homes with a 3-D set will be actively using 3-D by the end of 2016… .3-D is not the obvious next evolutionary step for TV, in the same way that color followed black and white and high definition (HD) is following standard definition (SD)."
But ESPN's Burns says 3-D TV is only now acquiring critical mass. "From a consumer standpoint it has to be easy for you to walk into your retailer, buy a set, take it home, call your multichannel service provider, and get our 3-D service. And those elements are coming together faster in this calendar year than they did at this stage in the history of HD."
Burns says that you can now buy a 40-inch 3-D TV "for under $700 with free shipping." That's still a big investment to make in uncertain economic times.
So far, the added cost of 3-D has worked against its general acceptance both at home and in theaters. "Avatar's" ability to pull off a record-breaking run despite the financial meltdown persuaded studios that they'd found a gimmick that was recession-proof.
A year and half later, audiences have reached their breaking-point on ticket price.
"The industry should look at lowering prices, not just for 3-D, but for regular movies," Gray said. "They think they can charge more for 3-D as a 'premium' experience, when it's not. Just throwing on sunglasses in the dark doesn't make it a premium experience."
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