The Devin’s Advocate: Is That The Death Cry Of 3D I Hear At The Box Office?

There have been four 3D flops in a row. Is this the end for the overpriced, gimmicky format?

This weekend’s box office is fairly remarkable. The number one and two movies in the nation are in their second and third weeks of release, respectively, and the two big heavy hitters - Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night - have completely flopped. They were even beat by Spy Kids 4D, a film that essentially snuck into theaters this weekend. What happened?

I believe that it was 3D killed the beast. This summer’s trend has seen audiences shunning 3D, with 3D ticket sales accounting for a smaller and smaller percentage of box office. Then last week Glee 3D flat out tanked; it’s very likely that a high level of Glee fatigue was the main factor in the film’s failure, but did the 3D hurt as well? Even if 3D wasn’t the deciding factor, another 3D movie also failed last week, and it was good: Final Destination 5 could not get people into theaters despite being the best in the series since 2 and despite making good, fun use of the 3D.

That’s four 3D flops in a row. If there were four superhero flops in a row we’d all be declaring superheroes over. While I don’t think these four flops mean 3D is quite over, I think it means we’ve hit a new point in how audiences deal with 3D.

Audiences have obviously become tired of 3D’s dark murkiness, as well as the format’s general shitiness. But more importantly, after a brief marketing-driven love affair with the format, audiences have realized that a bad movie in 3D remains a bad movie…except it’s more expensive. And so with films like Conan or Fright Night -films that looked marginal at best to audiences - the decision was to avoid spending the 3D surcharge on a film that wasn’t a sure thing.

It’s typical Hollywood, running something into the ground so quickly. James Cameron hasn’t even gotten started on the Avatar sequel and audiences are sick to death of the format he championed. And in further typical Hollywood fashion all they’re doing is hurting themselves; there are some films coming that might make strong use of 3D - films like The Hobbit and Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin - but the term feels poisoned. Right now it can be hard to find a 2D showing of a 3D film - you have to actually work at it, instead of simply walking up to the nearest box office. This is the opposite of the blockbuster wide release mentality - but I believe in a year this will be reversed. The equilibrium will be restored, and 2D screenings will be easy to find, while new releases that have good 3D will be few, far between and will be actual events.

There’s some element of wishful thinking on my part here. I do hate 3D; whenever possible I try to see a 3D movie in 2D (Warner Bros has been very helpful in this, scheduling just as many 2D press screenings as 3D ones). But the trends do seem sort of obvious. And while it’s always possible that a great 3D movie will help reverse the audience’s apathy towards 3D, what follows will again be a tsunami of bad 3D films.

Here’s the reality: 3D is doomed to be a gimmick as long as it costs more than a normal ticket price. There are other technical problems which essentially doom the format as well, but it’s price that’s proving to be the huge hurdle. While exhibitors and distributors scramble to fix the format’s brightness issue (ie, they finally bother to try and create a good presentation. It’s amazing that the presentation of a gimmick based on the presentation of movies is so bad, but it gives you a good look into the minds of Hollywood executives. Don’t make it any better, just sell it better) they’re continuing to ignore the pricing issue. People may pay more money to see The Hobbit in 3D because of its pedigree, but this weekend they voted with their wallets and told Hollywood they’re going to skip overpaying for junk like Conan and Fright Night. Will Hollywood listen?