By Victoria Zelvin
Pixar’s film “Finding Nemo” (2003) hit theaters again last Friday to a warm reception. The movie, which won Best Animated Feature at the 2003 Academy Awards, was re-released mainly to showcase one major new addition: the conversion of the original film to 3D. The film was warmly received by critics and audiences, as it was upon its original release, but ultimately lost out in the weekend box office rating to another 3D film, “Resident Evil: Retribution 3D”.
There is no shortage of 3D films these days. Films like “Titanic” (1997) and “Star Wars: Episode One: Phantom Menace” (1999) have also gotten the 3D post-conversion, re-release treatment. Other films, such as “Wrath of the Titans” (2012) and “The Last Airbender” (2010) were post-converted to 3D with less than savory results, but this has not stemmed the tide of 3D films hitting the theaters. Studios and theater chains, evidently, are not so quick to let the golden goose die. Faced with waning audience attendance, studios have gotten desperate.
It’s simply a fact that both film studios and theater chains are losing money. To be fair, in some cases it is simply that they are not making as much money as they are used to or very paranoid of losing money, but the point remains that the creators, distributors and vendors feel that they should be making more money for films. 3D offers them a chance to charge more for ticket prices, which in turn means essentially more money for everyone. In order to get away with this, everyone from vendor to creative team promises more bang for your buck. It may be true that it costs more to film in 3D, but the price isn’t all too high to simply convert a non-3D film after the fact. Showing 3D films don’t even require a different projector.
In marketing terms, the theaters are looking for ways to give audiences an experience that they can’t have at home. The gap between home theater systems and the actual theaters has been narrowed significantly with the advent of blu-ray, widescreen plasma televisions and now even 3D televisions. On top of that, studios have begun citing video piracy as their main antagonist, using this as a more “legitimate” excuse for post-conversions to 3D especially. The crux of the matter is that Hollywood feels threatened, so as it has done in the past, it turns to technology in order to draw audiences. This is not the first time that film studios have turned to 3D in order to draw audiences, with mixed results. Until the early two-thousands, the technology was mainly used for theme park attractions and some gimmicky releases, but nothing serious. Previously, studios have turned to other gimmicks like sound, color, widescreen, computer generated effects and even 3D (multiple times) to draw in audiences, some with more success and staying power than others.
3D makes good business sense right now, though, looking at the math. Films like “Avatar” (2009) made significantly more money when shown in 3D than 2D. Part of this is, yes, the inflated ticket price, but more people went to see “Avatar” in 3D was so significantly higher than those who saw it in 2D that theaters who showed the 3D movie exclusively made 50-100% more money than their exclusive 2D counterparts. One thing to understand from that number is that there are several strategies in play surrounding it. There is a reason that they made so much more money in 3D, aside from whatever laurels that “Avatar” could rest on, but I’ll come back to that. Looking at a different example, the number of copies of the movie “Prometheus” (2012) distributed to theater chains were unevenly skewed in the number of 3D copies of the film delivered, forcing theater chains to show “Prometheus” almost exclusively in 3D. There is also a trend of showing 3D versions of the film more regularly, trying to funnel audiences into these films rather than their identical 2D counterparts by simple matter of convenience.
Despite studios initially making money hand over fist, 3D films are not immune to flopping. As 3D has become a convention more than a gimmick, audiences are looking more carefully before they spend the extra surcharge. As studios flood the market with hasty post-conversions and sub-par films, it is inevitable that 3D has not always been critically acclaimed.
“3D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the movie-going experience.” In most cases, Ebert goes on to say, in most cases 3D is just “a scam to justify the surcharge,” says Roger Ebert.
This is especially true of those films hastily converted to 3D after the fact, as studios try to exploit the fad (and its accompanying significant surcharge) for all its worth.
This, of course, is ignoring what Ebert calls the “elephant” in the room when discussing 3D films; James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) stands as the highest grossing film of all time. Personally, I found the plot and character development lacking in the film and that is what hindered my enjoyment of Cameron’s first part of a promised trilogy, but even I can’t deny that the film looked simply stunning. Not quite breathtaking, but the effects were enough to make me appreciate having spent money to see the film. Would I see the film again? Probably not, I didn’t really care for it. Would I see it again in 3D? Probably not, I didn’t really care for it. My decisions to see films are based on more than just the format that it is shot in. Based on box office records, studios would say that I am in the minority on that opinion, which is a problematic viewpoint for several reasons. Regardless of critical reception, studios continue to push 3D films, whether the film needs 3D at all.
I’m not against 3D as an exception, nor am I against it entirely. To loosely sum up some a few comments made in a conversation between Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese: 3D should be used as a means, not an end. It should be a tool, not a gimmick.
If 3D were to actually add something to a film, then I would be all for it. But, as I look back on all the films I have seen in 3D, a trend is obvious in my opinions. Films like “Avatar” (2009), “Prometheus” (2012), “The Avengers” (2012), “Titanic” (1997) and “Finding Nemo” (2003) all fail or succeed on the laurels of their story, plot and characters. Breathtaking visuals aren’t enough. 3D didn’t make me like Loki more as a villain. It was a combination of story, well-written dialogue, and Tom Hiddleston’s acting ability did that. Whether the film was released in actual 3D or simply converted after the fact, I couldn’t really tell the difference one way or the other. I certainly couldn’t see why I was being charged a $4, $5, or even $6 surcharge for the experience.
The best film I have ever seen in 3D, judging on use of 3D alone, was “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010). Again, though, all I can really say is that the visuals were absolutely breathtaking. This isn’t a demerit against “How to Train Your Dragon”, but rather a commendation for the skill of those animators. Did I notice a difference between the 3D and 2D versions? Sure, a little bit. As with “Finding Nemo”, I would say that the atmosphere of the film was deeper and certainly clearer, but not necessarily better. I enjoy “How to Train Your Dragon” on DVD as much as I enjoyed seeing it in theaters.
A good film is a good film, 3D or not. “Finding Nemo” is a good film and, sure, I thought it looked stunning in 3D, but I would have thought that anyway because it is a stunning film. It was nice to see it in theaters again and if you’re a Pixar fan I wouldn’t dissuade you from seeing it in theaters again. Still, it didn’t sell me on the whole post-conversion, re-release 3D fad any more than “Titanic” or the “Phantom Menace” did, and nor did it sell me on 3D as an essential movie-making tool. Yes, 3D has gotten better and less gimmicky, but unless it’s an animated or heavily CG film, then I do not think it’s worth the headache unless the surcharge becomes more reasonable.