After two years as Hollywood's technology du jour, the sun may be setting for 3-D films based on reports of downward trending box-office returns.
When the sci-fi epic "Avatar" was released Dec. 16, 2009, the film's pioneering use of 3-D by director James Cameron was cited by many as the spark that ignited public interest in 3-D films. The film has grossed $2.78 billion to date, more than any other film even accounting for ticket inflation, according to movie-industry website BoxOfficeMojo.
In 2010, "Avatar's" success prompted the release of 31 films with 3-D versions, as many as were released from 2005 to 2008. Most continued to make more money than their 2-D counterparts until the release of "Toy Story 3" on June 18, 2010, according to Slate Magazine writer Daniel Engber.
Pixar's third "Toy Story" marked the first time since "Avatar" that a film earned less per screening in 3-D than in 2-D, a downward trend that has continued ever since, Engber wrote in a Sept. 15 Slate article.
Engber suggested 3-D films' decline was due to a lack of interest from moviegoers in uninspired use of the format, an opinion shared by some local cinemaphiles.
"[The 3-D effect] just came across as extremely hokey to me," said Eric Brown, 27, of his experience watching his first 3-D film, "Green Hornet," earlier this year. "It was unconvincing, and for me, it pulled me out of the moment."
Like experiments with moving seats and Smell-O-Vision, Brown said, 3-D is destined to become a passing fad unless filmmakers find more compelling ways to use it.
"Something novel that doesn't add much to the experience isn't going to last long," Brown said.
Fans also cited higher ticket costs as a major deterrent from viewing films in 3-D. According to Fandango.com prices, 3-D tickets at local theaters are $9.50, a 37 percent increase over standard rates.
Although he has enjoyed the use of 3-D in films such "Avatar" and 2007's "Beowulf," cinematographer and camera operator Bryan Fowler, 36, said he has been disappointed by how often 3-D effects disrupt the storytelling.
"It distracts people from being able to be taken away to another place," Fowler said. "The technology is almost always reminding you, 'Hey, this is a movie. This is a movie.' "
The disparity in quality among 3-D films is a concern shared even by some 3-D supporters.
James Cameron has repeatedly criticized the lower quality of 3-D effects created by digitally converting 2-D film during the post-production process.
"[Filmmakers] ... decide that what we accomplished in several years of production [on 'Avatar'] could be done in an eight-week ... conversion," Cameron said during an interview with USA Today on March 11, 2010.
"If people put bad 3-D in the marketplace, they're going to hold back or even threaten the emergence of 3-D," he added. "People will be confused by differences in quality."
Local movie fan Josh Moffitt, 26, said he continues to be underwhelmed by the post-production 3-D effects of recent films such as "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Thor." As a result, Moffitt said, he almost always opts to see films in 2-D.
"The 3-D post-production conversion has never failed to appear flat to me," Moffitt said. "I would rather keep the $10 or so that my wife and I save ... and spend it on something else than blow it on a gimmicky 3-D movie."
Some local moviegoers said they experience headaches when watching 3-D films and dislike the inconvenience of wearing an additional set of glasses over prescription lenses. Some also said they found 3-D films noticeably dimmer than when viewed in 2-D.
Despite 3-D's critics, Hollywood is far from giving up on the format.
In 2011, 27 films have already been released with 3-D versions, and another 11 are slated to appear by year's end. Next year, more than 35 are set to be released, according to a schedule on www.film-releases.com.
Cameron is still planning to release two "Avatar" sequels, the first of which is set to appear in 2014. Despite his criticism of 2-D to 3-D conversions, Cameron's next project is a 3-D re-release of his 1997 romance "Titanic" set to debut April 6.
Cameron's derision of 2-D to 3-D conversions may be thwarted somewhat by the recent success of a Sept. 16 conversion of Disney's "The Lion King," which took the No. 1 spot at the box office with a $29 million opening weekend.
Another major 2-D conversion that is sparking interest is a 3-D retooling of the Star Wars saga, which will begin Feb. 10 with the re-release of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." The film will mark the start of a multi-year 3-D conversion of the entire six-film series.
According to comments director George Lucas made during a May 25 interview on G4TV's "Attack of the Show," the 3-D format will offer fans a new, better way to experience Star Wars.
"I think we've taken [Star Wars 3-D] to a level equal to anything being shot in 3-D," Lucas said. "I think that watching a 3-D movie is a superior experience to watching a regular movie. It's like going from black and white to color; it's just a better way to watch it."
Assuming filmmakers find new ways to use the medium, the downward slide doesn't necessarily have to continue, said Daniel Griffith, a local documentary filmmaker.
"They will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that takes it further," Griffith said. "Right now, it's stagnant."
3-D FILMS OF 2011
UPCOMING 3-D FILMS IN 2011
TYPES OF 3-D
Although they all share the same goal, 3-D formats use different means to achieve the effect.