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Into the Third Dimension

Industry analyst Michael Gubbins examines whether digital 3D really is a sustainable form of entertainment.

‘Hollywood’s current crazy stampede towards 3D is suicidal,’ legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote in a recent article for Newsweek, so adding his voice to a significant number of prominent sceptics. Their argument is that the added dimension remains little more than a gimmick, however superior the current technology is to the previous 3D waves of the 1950s and ‘80s.

The current debate over the aesthetic merits of 3D too easily slips into snobbery of the kind that has accompanied every significant change in film, including colour and sound. But that does not mean we should be dismissive. Ebert and others ask very relevant questions about how more immersive an experience 3D really is, or whether the way that the brain processes information puts a serious limit on what can be done with the extra dimension.

From a business perspective, however, the issue boils down to rather simpler questions: will more tickets be sold, and how much will audiences be prepared to pay? The studios have taken a big gamble on the format and the early results have been highly promising. We should not forget that Avatar was not predicted to be the global record-breaker that it became. Equally, we should not take James Cameron’s monster hit as proof of concept for 3D. It was lovingly constructed by the master of the blockbuster over many years, had huge novelty value and had the 3D field to itself for weeks. We will only really be able to judge the long-term potential from these films when the market has settled down and 3D has become ubiquitous, and ubiquity is now the critical goal for the studios. The economics of 3D requires a rapid increase in screens, accelerating dramatically from the strong kick of the last two years to accommodate a greater number of films. The good news is that the theatre owners have been willing to invest in the necessary digital cinema equipment. The theatrical business has been largely convinced by the case for 3D, in contrast to the lack of confidence in the rest of the supposed D-cinema revolution.

Those having to sell real tickets to real people have been looking for product with the wow factor, recognising the reality that cinema was in need of new weaponry in the ever-more competitive fight for consumer time. Some will have lived through the recovery from the slump of the 1980s, and will recall how the multiplex transformed the cinema experience and reignited the box office. 3D is meant to be a big part of a similar programme of renewal.

We should not take James Cameron’s monster hit as proof of concept for 3D.

But you don’t need to buy the Ebert analysis to see a couple of major potential pitfalls. 3D, of course, has already expanded its offering to new kinds of content, including live concerts, sports, theatre etc., but there are legitimate fears about where independent film for grown-ups fits into this new world. The optimist sees 2D riding the 3D-generated wave, benefiting from the installation of digital equipment and, arguably, higher ticket prices. The pessimist sees independent film already struggling to find convincing digital business models squeezed out of screen time in bigger cinemas, while smaller theatres close because they can’t afford new equipment. How far 3D needs 2D and how important choice will be to cinemagoers is too little discussed.

A bigger question still is over home entertainment. The biggest factor in the recovery and boom in the 90s and 00s was actually VHS and then DVD, which not only generated the lion’s share of revenues but created a new wave of demand. If-and it’s a big if- 3D television is set for a fast take-off, then does it represent the same kind of symbiotic relationship with the big screen that DVD enjoyed?

A suicidal stampede is surely overstating the case but the enthusiasm for 3D and its premium ticket revenues needs to recognise that we are racing into a new and uncharted dimension for business. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 18 (August/September 2010)
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