Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hidden Perils of the Third Dimension

The success of "Alice in Wonderland" over the past few weeks, and "Avatar" in the months before have spurred a lot of interest in 3D films. Studios have been falling over themselves to fill their production slates with them, an unthinkable prospect only a year or two ago. And no wonder, as audiences have demonstrated that they're willing to pay up to a $3 premium for 3D films over old-fashioned projection. It's gotten to the point where scheduling wars are in full swing as 3D have to compete for a limited number of screens, often resulting in shortened theatrical runs and front-loaded box-office receipts. "Alice" cut short "Avatar," and is about to be bumped by "How to Train Your Dragon" this upcoming weekend.

I'm not a fan of 3D films myself, but I don't begrudge those who have embraced them. Theater owners are happy to have a new gimmick to keep the multiplexes full and filmmakers have new toys to play with. However, the rush to cash in on 3D is still a worrisome development in the industry as it's almost certainly going to impact future decisions about what kinds of film the studios are willing to finance. Special-effects spectacles look great in 3D, but the format doesn't do much for romantic comedies or adult dramas like Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," which is also opening this week. As IMAX screens and 3D-ready theaters are springing up like so many CGI daisies, I worry that a good chunk of the smaller, subtler films are going to be squeezed out permanently.

Looking at recent box office returns, the most vulnerable categories are adult dramas, prestige pictures, and mid-range films. Their numbers have been slipping precariously as the wattage of our A-list actors has dimmed, which means theater owners don't want to book these films if they have the choice and studios don't want to pay for them. Comedies and horror films will probably be all right, as they tend to be cheaply budgeted and are stable audience draws. If you're a fan of Oscar bait, however, there's ample reason to be concerned. The prestige labels are largely kaput, funding for the independents has all but dried up in the recession, and even Harvey Weinstein is tottering on the brink these days - though Quentin Tarantino did provide the Weinstein Company a brief reprieve last August with "Inglorious Basterds."

The studios have gotten more risk-averse than ever, and nearly all of them have cut back on the number of films in production. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but to see them shedding diverse film slates in favor of a steady stream of 3D special-effects behemoths leaves me worried. In addition to the questionable artistic merits and the lack of variety in our viewing choices, this is a risky bet for the studios if it goes wrong. Big effects films have astronomical budgets and need to be locked-in years in advance. If audiences lose their appetite for 3D films and the profit margins shrink, the studios and theater owners will be stuck with the cost of a lot of new theaters and a lot of very expensive movies.

The 3D movie trend came upon us quickly and it could go just as quickly as it becomes less novel. Last year's "Coraline" and "Avatar" were groundbreakers, but the latest crop of 3D films are just more of the same. And there's been a lot of sniping about the quality of a quickie conversion process that adds 3D elements to films like the new "Clash of the Titans" that were shot in 2D, in order to help them capitalize on the 3D rush. There's the very real danger of market oversaturation. According to Patrick Goldstein's "Big Picture" blog, Warner Brothers alone is planning to roll out nine 3D films in 2011. I'm getting eyestrain just thinking about it.

Finally, we're already seeing the arrival of "Real-D" enabled home theater systems, which will end the exclusivity of 3D in movie theaters. And it's going to make the premium ticket price tag look a whole lot less palatable soon.

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