The modern 3D explosion is very unlike the previous iterations of the stereoscopic fad. It’s not the tech – everybody tries to tell you that the polarized lenses are a big leap up from the traditional red/blue lenses, but polarized 3D has been around since the 30s; Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder was originally presented in polarized ‘Natural Vision’ 3D. The cameras capturing 3D are certainly better, and the ability to create a stereoscopic image that doesn’t nauseate half the audience has certainly been improved, but polarized 3D is pretty old.

What’s new – what’s different from the 50s and from the 80s, the last two great 3D fad periods – is that genre is king at the box office. Movies that would have once been considered B productions are now the most A list films imaginable; while that transition was happening in the 80s as Spielberg and Lucas rose to prominence in Hollywood, it’s finally complete now. Sure, the 50s fad saw some non-scifi/horror/action movies in 3D (check out Kiss Me Kate, a musical from 1953, for instance), but most of the films that benefit from the 3D process are the type that were traditionally low-budget and not terrible ‘important.’

Until now. The ascension of genre films to the top of the cultural ladder has created an intriguing scenario where the biggest and most important movies of the day are the perfect fodder for the gimmick of 3D. But with this has come another intriguing development – all of a sudden these movies are becoming premium experiences.

Premium experiences aren’t new to the movies; the first half of Hollywood’s first decade saw big blockbusters coming out in roadshow fashion – big gala events that had elevated ticket prices, assigned seats, commemorative programs. There was an intermission and roadshow movies played only once or at most twice a day. It was like a night at the theater, but at the movies. Today’s 3D movies are like roadshows in that they’re more expensive and are considered special events*, and they’re made for the exact same reason that Hollywood created the roadshow: they’re trying to win an audience back. In the last hurrah of the roadshow the movies were made in huge, unbelievably wide scope and presented in six channel stereo, all in an attempt to woo audiences away from their tiny, tinny square TVs. Today’s 3D films are trying to tear viewers away from their illegal torrents and get money from them before they legally buy the films for their excellent, state of the art home theaters.

So could 3D films meet the same fate as the roadshow picture? One of the things that killed the roadshow – the rise of the multiplex – is part of the success of 3D films in general. Movies like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland play in 3D on a remarkable number of screens, and with the premium price format – often 50% more than regular ticket prices – these films rake in the big bucks. But while the multiplex is usually considered the roadshow’s killer, I think there’s another thing that did the format in:

Bad movies.

Imagine booking expensive tickets, dressing up, buying a program, sitting down in your assigned seat… and then suffering through two and a half hours of the horrible Dr. Dolittle. Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s had forgotten how to make great films, and the by-the-book epics and giant musicals weren’t just bad, they were terrible, and audiences stayed away in droves.

Since then Hollywood has learned not how to make better movies but how to properly sell bad movies, so I don’t think the quality of a film has that much of an impact when the studio knows how to market it, and is willing to spend the cash to do it right. After all, the new Alice in Wonderland is fairly atrocious, and it’s earning money in remarkable amounts.

There is one thing that’s wrong with Alice, though, that I think bodes ill for 3D: the 3D sucks. The film is riding the post-Avatar 3D high; many audiences had never seen 3D used as well as it was in Avatar, and they’ve now been converted. They’re willing to hit the theater and pay a premium price to see a 3D movie, hoping to replicate that experience. But Alice doesn’t. And I suspect (although no one I know has seen it in 3D) neither will Warner Bros’ hastily 3Dimensionalized Clash of the Titans, which opens in a few weeks.

Just as the release of many, many terrible movies did in the roadshow format, will the release of poorly done 3D films kill 3D? A look at planned 3D releases this year shows that a lot of the movies coming out in the format are the traditional 3D types – cartoons and lower budget genre pictures, but as with Clash of the Titans and MGM’s delayed Cabin in the Woods, studios are starting to retrofit their films into 3D to take advantage of the fad. It’s not too late for The A-Team or The Last Airbender or Predators to jump on the wagon. And I suspect that more and more films will take advantage of the post-production stereoscopic technique in the coming months.

Films that are shot in 3D always look better in 3D than films that are converted. And that’s the crux of the problem. Between a fairly weak release schedule (is anybody really willing to pay 50% extra to see Despicable Me?) and the fact that a post-3D process could be easier for filmmakers who aren’t quite ready to embrace the complexities of shooting in stereo, we could end up with a lot of films in 2010 and 2011 that are in 3D but are bad in 3D. And how long does it take for the audience to cool on the technique, especially if they’re paying extra money for it?

What could do 3D in is its own success. As everybody rushes to get on board we’re going to see more mediocre 3D and the shine will wear off. The extra ticket price, a boon to the industry right now, could become a boondoggle if it turns audiences away from expensive 3D films. And with home theaters catching up to the 3D ‘revolution,’ the expense of going to the movies to see a film in that format may no longer be a novelty. It took decades for regular people to be able to replicate a widescreen, surround sound experience in their homes; it may be only a few years before 3D home theaters are cheap enough for the average person (if they’re inclined to sit on their couch in stupid glasses – I think the fact that unlike sound and color, 3D requires extra hardware for the viewer is another thing that will limit the lifespan of the fad, but that’s another argument for another time), meaning that instead of spending 80 bucks to get the family to a movie as bad as Alice in Wonderland, they can do it at home for the price of a rental.

It’ll take a few years for the audience to lose interest in 3D, and the lifespan of the fad could be extended if Hollywood simply dedicates itself to doing 3D well and earning the extra ticket price**. But just as having movies wide and on the big screen stopped being enough to drag audiences in for roadshows, so will 3D lose its luster. And what then? Don’t laugh at the people who sit in those D-Box motion seats – we’re moving ever closer to a theatrical world where the line between amusement park ride and movie is blurred. And for a while everybody will be excited about the possibilities of the new Odorama or whatever is next.***

* they’re unlike roadshows in that roadshows were limited releases, and sometimes different cuts from the general release. A roadshow version of a movie could be very long and include an intermission, but it might be trimmed down for the general release. 3D films bow everywhere at once today.

** this will never, ever happen.

*** There’s one last aspect of 3D film distribution that doesn’t really fit into this piece but that should be addressed here: 3D is a way of stemming piracy, especially in the Russian and Chinese markets. I don’t know how well this will work – there will always have to be 2D screenings, one assumes – but even if 3D thwarts the pirates now, within a year or two these folks will have ways to get these movies on Bit Torrent and to sell them in Hong Kong shops. The reality is that any weapon Hollywood can come up with will be neutralized by these people – it’s an escalating war between two groups looking to protect their profits.