Out of its depth: Five years after 'Avatar,' interest in 3-D tech has flatlined

Out of its depth: Five years after 'Avatar,' interest in 3-D tech has flatlined

August 7th, 2014 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

The 3-D film "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" opens in theaters Aug. 8. Among the cast are Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner and Whoopi Goldberg.

Photo by Photo: ILM/Paramount Pictures


Here are the films set for release in the rest of 2014 that will be offered in 3-D

* Aug. 8 - "James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge 3D"; "Step Up All In"; "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

* Aug. 22 - "Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"

* Sept. 26 - "The Boxtrolls"

* Oct. 17 - "The Book of Life"

* Nov. 7 - "Big Hero 6"

* Nov. 26 - "The Penguins of Madagascar"

* Dec. 17 - "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies"

Source: BoxOffice.com

When James Cameron's science-fiction blockbuster "Avatar" hit theaters in 2009, its record-setting $2.8 billion take at the box office seemed - to some - to herald 3-D films as the next great cinematic evolution.

Hollywood embraced the technology with gusto. The number of movie screens capable of projecting 3-D content jumped from about 2,500 in 2008 to more than 36,000 in 2011, according to statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America. The number of titles released in 3-D jumped as well, from 10 in 2008 - most of them nature documentaries - to 39 in 2011.

The 3-D craze also spread to the living room. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in 2010, 3-D TVs were prominently on display, and the Consumer Electronics Association announced at the trade show that it anticipated the capability to display 3-D content to be available on 25 percent of new TVs by 2013.

Companies bet big on providing 3-D for this anticipated wave of sets, with entire 3-D centric channels announced by ESPN, Disney, Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX. Major cable providers such as Comcast, Cablevision and DirecTV also launched 3-D video-on-demand services.

Five years after "Avatar," however, consumer interest in the technology has all but flatlined.

"The glasses make the color too dim and dark," writes Jake Foraker, of Jasper, Tenn., in a response to a Times Free Press Facebook post. "The effects aren't that good and the extra cost is stupid, especially with all the money the theaters are raking in."

Many Chattanoogans express similar distaste for 3-D. Of more than 100 responses to a Facebook post gauging public interest in 3-D movies and TVs, the overwhelming majority (93 percent) were negative, some of them vehemently so.

"I hate 3-D," says Becky Von Stein of Ooltewah. "It makes me physically ill."

For many, the increased cost of tickets to 3-D showings at the multiplex is reason enough to avoid it. According to local prices, tickets for 3-D showings cost $13.75, a 41 percent markup from the $9.75 charged for regular 2-D tickets.

"[It's] nice, but completely not worth the price-gouging at the theaters," Heather Ely says on the newspaper's Facebook page. "Ticket prices are already so ridiculous that you have to hawk your soul just to take a family out for movie night. [It] doesn't really matter if 3-D goes away completely."

While love for 3-D has all but faded, the first signs that the flame was fading started years ago.

Just five months after he referred to "Avatar" as a "technical breakthrough" with "the best" iteration of 3-D he'd ever seen, vaunted critic Roger Ebert lambasted the 3-D cinema in a May 2010 Newsweek editorial titled "Why I Hate 3D Movies." In the editorial, the late Chicago Sun-Times critic pointed out 3-D films' more muted, darker image compared to 2-D films and the higher ticket prices charged to recoup the cost of investing in the necessary equipment, among other criticisms.

"3D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension," Ebert wrote. "Hollywood's current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience."

Ebert's negative perception of 3-D proved to be widespread.

According to the MPAA's annual Theatrical Statistics Summary, viewership of 3-D films has been on the decline for years. The last time the majority of American and Canadian moveigoers - 51 percent - saw at least one film in 3-D was in 2011. In 2013, 3-D attendance had decreased by 20 percent to just 31 percent of moviegoers, with attendance skewing toward children ages 2 to 17, according to MPAA statistics.

For some, distaste with 3-D is rooted in physical discomfort from the viewing experience. Many locals say the reason they avoid the format is because the films can cause nausea, occasionally severe headaches or both.

"I avoid 3-D due to the massive headache ['Avatar'] gave me," writes Laura Lupton, who used to live in Chattanooga but now resides in Fayetteville, N.C. "My headache was the most intense I've ever experienced, but it also went away in about 90 minutes after the movie. I had been to 3-D films before that happened, but I will never go back again."

An April 2013 edition of Pennsylvania State University's "Medical Minute" feature says that these conditions are common among viewers, but the symptoms are temporary. Neither the American Association of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have linked watching 3-D content with long-term effects or damaged vision, Penn State Hershey Eye Center ophthalmic photographer Timothy Bennett said in the article

"It can be slightly disorienting, like motion sickness," Bennett says. "As soon as you stop looking at 3-D, it should clear up."

However, many viewers have chosen to avoid 3-D content entirely, and not just on the home front. Many companies that invested heavily in the technology early on have severed support for the technology.

In July 2013, the United Kingdom's BBC announced it was putting an indefinite hold on broadcasting 3-D programs after a two-year trial run, citing a lack of adoption of the new technology, even by those who owned 3-D TV sets. The network's head of 3D, Kim Shillinglaw, said the service had "not taken off" and was reported by customers to be "quite hass[le-]ly."

The BBC announcement came hot on the heels of a similar announcement in June 2013 that ESPN would shutter its three-year experiment with ESPN 3D at the end of 2013, citing "low adoption of 3D in the home."

After two years of placing enormous spotlights on 3-D capable sets, the industry buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show for making 3-D a fixture in the living room largely has been abandoned in favor of touting the next wave of ultra-high-resolution - or 4K - TVs. In a 2013 article wrapping up coverage of that year's electronics show, writer Vlad Savov from Verge, a tech website, summed up situation with a simple statement: "It's official: 3D is dead."

And many viewers say they don't plan to shed any tears at its passing.

"It's a technology that falls into the 'just because you can do it doesn't mean you should' category," says Tim Allen of Chattanooga. "Let's revisit the idea when we have figured it out optically, instead of [with] the current tech."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.