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By Gordon Meyer
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There are those who would tell you that the current cycle of 3D entertainment is on its last legs.  They base this on the shrunken interest in 3D TVs domestically.  But they’d be wrong.  Yes, ESPN has announced the phase out of their 3D cable channel and 3D TV sales have gone down over the past few years.  If you go to your local Best Buy, Target or Costco you’ll find only a handful of models on display.  Seems that, at least for now, the CE manufacturers have decided to focus more on Smart TV technology and apps than 3D.  But a look in my crystal ball tells me this is a short term hiccup and that 3D is far from dead.

Ever since the first 3D movies appeared in the 1920s (you read that correctly), there has been strong public interest in the format.  That’s why producers kept bringing it back every 20 years or so with strong initial box office that ultimately tapered off.  The problem was a combination of technical issues and filmmakers treating the medium as more than a mere novelty.  Earlier analog incarnations of 3D were often physically painful for viewers thanks to a combination of ghostly double vision and just enough of a misalignment between the right and left images to cause eye strain.

Digital technology has largely solved the technical issues, at least theatrically and A-list filmmakers like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi are making movies that use 3D as an effective storytelling tool rather than a gimmick.  But it’s no longer a novelty to see movies in 3D and audiences are becoming resistant to that $3 surcharge at the box office.  Plus, more and more movies released in 3D are being shot in 2D and converted in post with varying results.  When done well, not only does a 2D-3D conversion look as good as, if not better than a movie shot with a 3D rig, many of the filmmakers I’ve spoken with have told me they actually have more creative flexibility shooting 2D and converting.

But I’ve been saying for a long time that 3D in the home will ultimately drive 3D in theatres than the other way around.  And it appears that the need for glasses, especially when they’re the pricey active shutter glasses, has had more of an impact than I anticipated.  Actually, it’s kind of a chicken and egg situation with not enough compelling native 3D content out there to justify the price difference between a 2D and 3D TV for consumers.

In the software industry, there’s a term called “Killer App,” which basically means a program or other type of content that’s so hot; so compelling, that consumers buy the hardware just to run that killer app.  In the early days of the personal computer, programs like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 were the killer apps that sold tons of PCs.  But video content is so diverse and fluid and demand for new content so insatiable that there is not likely to be a single 3D title so astounding as to serve as a killer app.  Instead, the killer app is having the pool of quality 3D content grow to critical mass so that consumers are confident that, not only do they have plenty of 3D titles available now, but that there is a steady stream of quality 3D titles consistently in the distribution pipeline.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  First of all, there are at least a dozen 3D movies scheduled for release between now and the end of the year according to the folks at RealD, the company whose passive glasses have become the de facto standard for most theatres running 3D and are now being used in a growing number of 3D capable TVs.  More to the point, even though 3D theatrical attendance has plateaued domestically, 3D consumption both theatrically and in the home have significantly grown in the global market, especially in Europe and China.  With international sales making such an important part of total content revenue, Hollywood studios will indefinitely continue to roll out tent pole movies in 3D.

Meanwhile, as I discussed in my recent article about the new Dolby 3D format, we’re finally getting very close to the point where glasses-free 3D TVs become a practical reality.  I’ve seen prototypes of glasses-free displays for well over 10 years and for most of that time, they’ve been interesting glimpses at what could be, but were far from ready for prime time.   But in the last year, I’ve seen some prototypes that are very nearly there.  The folks at Dolby anticipate having product in stores within the next two years.

If the Dolby folks are right, having affordable glasses-free 3D TVs should be a shot in the arm for the format.  This is assuming that A) the price difference between the glasses-free displays and conventional 3D displays is a modest one, making the decision to pay that premium an easy one; B) those displays have decent real-time 2D-3D converters so that consumers can enjoy as much 3D content as they want, even if they have to “make it” themselves; and C) that the pool of quality 3D entertainment continues to grow so that consumers have confidence they’ll have a steady stream of native quality 3D content available.

But the bottom line is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors about the death of 3D are highly exaggerated.  

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Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

 

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By Gordon Meyer
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A few weeks ago marked the 50th Anniversary of a movie that helped change the way Hollywood does business – for better or worse.  That movie is “Cleopatra,” a four hour road show, historical epic that ran into so many cost overruns it almost put 20th Century Fox out of business.   In today’s dollars, the troubled production would probably cost well north of $350 million, much of it blatantly wasteful.  But as notorious as the film was when it was being made, 50 years later, it stands as a remarkable demonstration of the filmmakers art in the mid-20th century.

There’s an old saying, that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” which had to be coined in reference to movies like “Cleopatra.” We’re talking the kind of “cast of thousands” epic that Hollywood at one time gloried in.    Its $44 million price tag shows on the screen.  This picture has the kind of spectacle that today’s filmmakers can only dream of – and with no digital effects.  Everything on the screen has an analog reality with some jaw dropping set pieces, like Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome.

But as we already know, you can have all the jaw dropping spectacle you want.  If you don’t have great performances and a strong story, it doesn’t matter.   With the objectivity of 50 years, Taylor’s performance in this movie reminds us of why she epitomized the term “movie star.” The movie itself turns a major chapter in world history into a big screen soap opera with plenty of intrigue, personal and national politics, and passionate romance (much easier to buy Cleopatra’s romance with Burton as Marc Antony than Harrison’s Caesar).  And yes, co-writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz did take a few creative liberties with historical facts, including set designs taken from periods of Egyptian history hundreds of years apart.  But it all works.

For the movie’s 50th Anniversary, Fox released both two and three disc versions on Blu-ray and provided me with a review copy of the two disc version.  Let’s start with the transfer.  Mankiewicz had so much material, he originally wanted the movie to be broken down into two separate three-hour epics with part 1 focusing on Caesar and Cleopatra and part 2 on Marc Antony and Cleopatra.  Between Fox’s desperate need to get the movie out in theatres ASAP and the public’s fascination with the soap opera romance between co-stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, that six hour version never happened. 

The original road show presentation ran just over four hours plus intermission before another hour was lopped off for general release.  While there remains considerable question as to whether the original footage even exists to recreate the intended six hour version, for this 50th Anniversary edition, Fox has lovingly restored the original 70mm Todd-AO four hour roadshow presentation and it looks stunning.  Even though the movie was originally shot using Eastmancolor stock, the colors are as vibrant and clear as the best dye transfer Technicolor prints of anything from that era. 

All the bonus content on the two disc version was re-purposed from earlier DVD releases and other standard def sources, including a two hour “Making of” documentary originally produced for the AMC cable network, a look at the search for missing footage, a running commentary by Chris and Tom Mankiewicz (director Joseph Mankiewicz’s sons), actor Martin Landau and publicist Jack Brody and newsreel coverage of the New York and west coast premieres.   Even though none of the bonus content on the two disc release is in HD, it’s still quite fascinating, especially the AMC special. 

No question about it.  “Cleopatra” is a lavish, eye popping classic that belongs in any film buff’s library.

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 Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

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