A couple of weeks back I wrote an Advocate where I talked about the coming storm for 3D: a flood of post-production conversion movies. These films were shot in 2D and made 3D through technological gimmickry in post; it’s cheaper and easier to do this, on average, than to actually do the work required to shoot in 3D. It’s still exceptionally expensive, especially when done on the quick, but it’s so much easier than asking directors to learn to shoot in new ways. And, should the 3D boom bust (as it will), not shooting in 3D means a studio isn’t stuck with a stereoscopic boondoggle.
Since I wrote that first Advocate, things have changed, and they’ve changed in ways that prove my beliefs. First, 3D ticket prices were jacked way up. Second, I saw the post-converted Clash of the Titans in 3D.
Prices rose this past weekend, buoying the box office takes of How to Train Your Dragon and Alice in Wonderland. 3D screens were always more expensive (a reality that Avatar boosters don’t like looking at when confronted with the idea that the movie’s record-breaking total should have an asterisk next to it), but they got pricier by up to 3 bucks. It’s a simple price gouge – exhibitors saw that people were willing to pay more for a 3D ticket and now they’re seeing how much more they’ll pay. My local theater’s Digital 3D screening of How to Train Your Dragon is a 15 dollar ticket; it’s even pricier to see it in IMAX.
Fifteen bucks is a lot of money. If you don’t live in a major market your ticket price is probably lower (and if you live in New York it’s probably higher), but the point remains that a 3D movie costs more than a 2D movie – by quite a bit. By an amount that really adds up when you’re bringing your family of four to the theater. By an amount that’s noticeable, and that’s going to have people looking at their 3D movies with a critical eye.
Not that critical of an eye. The fact that Alice in Wonderland - a film that is rancid as both cinema and as a 3D experience – is doing so well proves that the general movie audience remains as easily duped as ever. The quality of the film has never mattered much to the general audience, something anyone who watches box office learned long ago. But the quality of the 3D will begin mattering to them very soon.
Maybe as soon as next week. While I thought Alice in Wonderland had simply wretched, barely-there 3D, Clash of the Titans manages to top that with 3D that swings wildly from barely there (taking your glasses off during the film resulted in only a slightly fuzzy – but much brighter – image) to atrociously rendered. Post-conversion creates pop-up book 3D, where everything is a flat plane that is separated from other flat planes, offering illusory depth, but Clash takes that to the next level. Some characters, apparently in an attempt to give their forms depth, exist on multiple planes – sometimes the front of Zeus’ head appears to be three feet before the back of his head. Director Louis Leterrier flew all over the world to get impressive backgrounds for the epic, but in post-converted 3D many of these landscapes are ruined, with the planes being all over the place. In other scenes where the camera moves around a foreground object the object itself seems to be morphing as the planes are shifted to maintain a 3D image.
It’s a goddamn disaster, frankly. I keep talking to people who simply took their glasses off for most of the movie – while the image was fuzzy it wasn’t as bad as it looked through the glasses, which made the entire film look like it was shot through the dusty rear windshield of a Dodge Dart left in a garage for six years. I’m almost hesitant to review the film because I can’t tell which of my problems with it stem from the movie and which stem from being irritated by the presentation the entire time.
But once people drop 15 bucks to see Clash of the Titans in 3D they’re going to begin wondering why they’re throwing away good money when it’s playing in 2D for five fewer dollars in the theater next door. In a lot of ways the hike in prices and the rush to post-convert – expect a dozen such films this year – are creating a perfect storm of self-destruction for the exhibitors and the studios alike. I think the studios could get away with shitty post-conversion if ticket prices remained reasonable, and I think exhibitors could get away with a price hike if every movie used 3D like Avatar, Coraline or How to Train Your Dragon. But when you put the two together it’s a mess waiting to happen.
I won’t be sorry to see 3D sunk by the greed and stupidity of Hollywood; I think it’s a gimmick and even when used well isn’t that interesting beyond the most base spectacle level. I will say that Clash of the Titans is the first 3D movie I’ve seen where I want to see it at home, in 2D, because I’d like to give the film a second chance without the wounds Warner Bros has inflicted upon it.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for general audience dissatisfaction in the coming months. Over the last three decades Hollywood has learned the trick of getting these people into theaters on opening weekend; I think they’ve finally overextended themselves and will find that their old marketing gags won’t work anymore come 2012.