Is 3D All About the Money?

This article was published on Dream Row’s website on July 1, 2012.

Is 3D All About the Money?

By Nicole LaChance

In the past few years it seems that every theater has been showing more and more 3D movies. In fact, at last count my local theater had 2 of their 10 screens occupied by 3D versions of new releases. The movies on these two screens don’t just come with special glasses, they come with a $3 price mark-up from the regular ole’ 2D movies next door. As someone who has never gotten the appeal of 3D movies, I am left to ask: is it worth the money?

How It Works

3D movies are basically two movies. The screen actually consists of two separate, fractured images. Since movie screens, unlike plays with real life actors on a stage, cannot actually produce three-dimensional people and settings, they actually project one vertical image and one horizontal image. With the aid of the 3D glasses, which use polarized light and block all images coming from the wrong direction, the viewer’s brain must put the images together to create one 3D image. (A more detailed explanation of the process can be found here.) So with 3D movies the viewer is actually getting two films for the price of one. However, the viewer also has to work harder to get the image since the brain has to process more light waves.

The Good

When done right, 3D movies can offer the viewer an enhanced viewing experience. A recent example of good 3D is Avatar. Even some 3D skeptics have praised the effects of the popular film, proving that with time and money (the movie cost over $200 million to make) the extra dimension can add something to a film. Cinema Blend has a list of nine other movies where 3D effects enhanced the film and how those can be created replicated in other movies. It’s notable that over a fourth of these are animated movies, where animators can really immerse the audience in the world of the movie and take full advantage of the 3D effects.

In an interview with The Guardian, Film academic Owen Weetch shared some of his research regarding 3D movies. Weetch notes that while 3D doesn’t work for all movies it is not a completely useless medium. He says the medium is beneficial for movies that focus a lot on the environment of the film and utilize the space well. Horror movies can be particularly helped by 3D technology because they can maximize the shadows to heighten the terror of the audience.

The Bad

While 3D can enhance some movies, for others it appears to be just a way to earn more revenue. Paul Young delved into the subject of 3D movie revenue in an article for Screen Rant. He notes that the conversion process can cost around $500,000 but increase revenue by as much as 30 percent. Young also points out the timing of the 3D boom. Before 2009 and the releases of Avatar and Up, two financially successful 3D films, yearly 3D release were in the single digits. Post-2009 the number is closer to 20 and climbing. Judging from the timeline, it seems at least some of these 3D movies are trying to recreate the financial success of Avatar.

The quality and payoff of 3D can also be affected by when in the production process the 3D is implemented.  Movies like Avatar are shot in 3D with 3D cameras and are therefore made in a way to enhance the 3D. Movies like Alice in Wonderland, however, are converted to 3D post-production and therefore do not usually utilize the technology in the best way. This is the type of 3D used in re-releases of older movies, meaning that the viewing experience is not really enhanced from the original film.  So why don’t all 3D movies use 3D equipment for filming? It all comes back to the money. Shooting with the special equipment takes extra time, a bigger crew and more money. When revenue, not the enhancement of the film, is the main point it is easier and faster to go the post-production route.

What Viewers Think

Ultimately, the success 3D in the long-term will be determined by the viewers. If no one watches 3D studios will stop spending money on the technology. Neurobioligist Mark Changizi believes that to many people 3D movies are just fun. Watching a 3D movie can give one the opportunity to explore places they have never been in a way that feels more “real.” Viewers of 3D movies also can have the experience of the show reaching out to them, making them feel like they are part of the movie and creating a more personal viewing experience.

Famous critic Roger Ebert has famously and loudly come out against 3D films. Ebert believes the 3D fad is solely about making money by adding to ticket prices and selling projection equipment. He states that 3D adds nothing to the movie going experience, citing movies like Casablanca and Precious that are great movies on their own and would not be enhanced by adding 3D effects. Despite what Ebert thinks though, 3D counted for 16.7 percent of 2011 box office revenue, meaning someone has to be enjoying it.

The subject of 3D movies can be a polarizing one among movie buffs and whether or not they are worth the money depends on who you ask. It all comes down to the individual and if they enjoy the format. Are studios making a lot of money on these movies? Yes. But if you think the 3D adds to the viewing experience, then shell out the extra couple bucks and enjoy the show. If not, luckily most theaters offer the cheaper 2D option next door.


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