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The 3D Summer

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By Gordon Meyer
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I recently went to see the final chapter of the “Harry Potter” series at my local Cineplex – and, of course had to do so in 3D.   Warner Bros. made a big deal about how “Deathly Hallows, Part 2” was being presented in 3D.  As many remember, Part 1 was also supposed to be presented in 3D, but both parts were initially shot in 2D.  Although I have yet to see any documentation of this, I suspect the decision to convert Warner’s most lucrative franchise finale was made by corporate honchos well after the film went into production.

Last year, Warner Bros. had another high profile fantasy release that was initially produced in 2D, but converted to 3D to make an extra buck  - the remake of “Clash of the Titans.”  By all reports (I have yet to see the movie in either a flat or 3D format), it was a poor conversion that pissed off audiences paying a premium for the 3D experience.  When it looked like the conversion of “Deathly Hallows 1” was going to be similarly underwhelming, Warners wisely decided to scrap the 3D release, but continue with plans to convert Part 2 to 3D. 

Many of the industry’s 3D supporters were banking on “Deathly Hallows 2” to help revive the public’s support of 3D as a premium format.   But since the film was never designed for a 3D presentation to begin with, although the conversion itself was respectable, Mr. 3D here walked away feeling like I would have enjoyed it just as much in 2D.  Even a sequence like the roller coaster type ride through the underground vaults of Gringott’s bank, which should have been a 3D showcase, came off as just OK in 3D.

In contrast, “Transformers 3,” which was planned, designed and shot in 3D to begin with, made much better use of the technology as an enhancement of the audience experience.  Though once again, as effective as director Michael Bay was, to me this film once again demonstrated that Hollywood is still in Learning Curve Mode when it comes to 3D cinema.  In this case, the design of the robots themselves and their spacecraft would have been much more effective and easier on the eyes to follow had their designs been streamlined.  Of course here, Bay and his team also had to deal with the legacy designs of the two previous films.

Meanwhile, there was Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 2” which once again demonstrated Pixar’s filmmaking prowess.  Even though, story and character-wise, this was arguably the weakest of the Pixar features, it still demonstrated that when you put the emphasis on story and character and THEN design, shoot and edit your film with the intention of giving audiences a 3D experience that, as producer Jon Landau often said, “is a window into another world, instead of things coming out of a window,” you have a formula for success.

Meanwhile, according to film-releases.com, there are at least another 18 3D features slated for release between now and the end of the year and at least 34 films slated for next year.  The question is, will the studios and exhibitors continue to use 3D as an excuse to charge an extra $3 or $4 at the box office or, in response to growing consumer backlash, come up with a different business model? 

Back in the late 1970s, when the first “Star Wars” movie put Dolby Stereo on the map, exhibitors used this new technology as a way of giving audiences an experience they couldn’t get at home to put more butts in seats.  Their investment in the audio equipment paid off because, by giving audiences a better overall experience, they sold more tickets, meaning more butts in seats, which in turn translated into more revenue at the concession stand where most of their profits came from (and still do).

There’s almost always a honeymoon period when a dramatic new technology like 3D is such a novelty that people will go just to experience the technology.  But sooner or later, the novelty wears off and then audiences go back to the only really valid criteria for choosing a movie.  Is it any good?

At the end of the day, good movies sell tickets.  Great movies sell a lot of tickets.   Just as with “Star Wars” 34 years ago, and “Avatar” a year and a half ago, people will first choose to see a movie because of strong positive word of mouth that it’s a really good movie.  Then, if the new technology really enhances the experience, as was the case with those two movies, audiences will then choose where to see the movie based on which theatres offer the best presentation.  

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