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Are the 3D pundits right?

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By Gordon Meyer
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According to a posting on the Deadline.com site the other day, Wall Street analyst Richard Greenfield claims that "U.S. consumers are increasingly rejecting 3D movies" and claims that attendance for the opening weekend of Disney's Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides "would have been higher" if half of its screens showed the movie in conventional 2D instead of just a third. 

Time to jump on my soap box, boys and girls.  Just about every time a new technical innovation happens in this industry, there are self-proclaimed experts who think that it’s the technology that sells tickets. It happened in the late 1920s with the introduction of synchronized sound; a decade later with Technicolor; then Cinerama, CinemaScope, 70mm, Dolby Stereo, whiz bang special effects, CG animation and now 3D (the fifth 3D cycle since the 1920s). 

With the introduction (or in the case of 3D, re-introduction) of each of these technologies, there were people who came to the conclusion that these novelties were the primary factor in driving ticket sales. Horse manure!  

Back in 1977, “Star Wars” broke technological ground in the use of both multi-channel sound and special effects that just blew people away.  But if audiences didn’t care about Luke, Han, Leia, Chewy and the droids, there’s no way that movie would have run for over a solid year at Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Blvd. and become a veritable money machine for George Lucas.  Lucas knew that the technology had to be in service of the story and characters.  (We won’t talk about how many fans feel he’s forgotten that lesson.)

“Avatar” became the highest grossing film of all time first and foremost because James Cameron is a hell of a storyteller.  He has often talked about the priority of making sure that, in terms of emotion and drama, “Avatar” worked just as well in 2D as it did in 3D – which is why the 2D-only Blu-rays and DVDs flew off the shelves.  He knows that, as valuable a storytelling tool as 3D can be to enhance and intensify an audience’s experience, it still comes down to giving the audience an emotional experience based on character and story.

Exciting new technologies can make a good movie great, but can’t save a mediocre one.  When it comes to 3D, filmmakers are still going through major league growing pains.  One of the things they’re learning is that, in order for audiences to have the best possible experience, 3D has to be done right – and ideally designed from the very beginning for 3D. 

As for converting 2D movies into 3D, there are some movies that can absolutely be enhanced by the process – if the conversion is done right.  At the recent New Media Film Festival, an entire evening was devoted to 3D shorts.  Most of them were converted from 2D, including a breathtaking excerpt from the 1923 Harold Lloyd silent comedy “Safety Last” and even more breathtaking footage of deep space nebulas and galaxies shot from the Hubble telescope and converted.

 I’m confident that when perfectionists like James Cameron and George Lucas release the 3D converted versions of “Titanic” and the “Star Wars” saga over the next few years, they’ll prove to be text book examples of how to do conversions the right way.   

Getting back to Mr. Greenfield’s proclamation that "U.S. consumers are increasingly rejecting 3D movies," what they’re really rejecting is being charged a premium to see a bad or mediocre movie. 

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