In a 2010 Newsweek essay, acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert wrote “3D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal.”
Yet, it is impossible to go a week without seeing a commercial for a new movie that you can “experience in 3D.”
True, some people really love 3D, but many echo Ebert’s thoughts — 3D is simply not worth it. The question then moves not from if 3D is worthwhile, but why it is constantly advertised.
Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning of the 3D craze, which dates back to 1952, when “Bwana Devil” was released, making it the first 3D color film, according to an IGN article. Back then, 3D was purely experimental.
The biggest breakthrough came with Edwin H. Land’s development of a polarizing sheet that absorbed and deflected light, thus making images appear to be coming out of the screen.
The 1950s are often associated as the golden age of 3D, as it crossed over into comic books with 3D images. Horror films dominated the 3D craze, with horror master Alfred Hitchcock even taking a try with the new medium.
However, the trend was all but gone by the end of the decade. The costs of projecting 3D films were just too high for theaters in an age where the average movie ticket cost roughly 40 to 70 cents.
More advances were made throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the trend popped up again from time to time. Yet, the greatest leap for 3D came in the early 2000s.
“Digital projection gave 3D a new kind of appeal, starting with 2004’s ‘The Polar Express’,” said Kevin Hagopian, a Penn State senior lecturer in the College of Communications. “No longer did two pieces of film have to be physically synched during projection.”
While the 2000s provided great growth in the 3D field, it was not the new technology that was off-putting to audiences, but rather the way technology was used. Some films simply added 3D as an afterthought and thus adversely affected the quality of the film and made the special medium feel “cheap.”
“I think that people need to be very careful when using 3D in their movies and either shoot directly in 3D or with 3D in mind as they are shooting,” said Zach Wolff. “An after the thought, ‘Hey let's add 3D’ conversion is not a good idea and is just a cheap money grab.”
Of course, there are success stories, the greatest one being the 2009 James Cameron fantasy “Avatar.” Cameron had reportedly been working on “Avatar” since before he directed the 1997 classic “Titanic.” Cameron used a lot of his own money and spent years developing 3D technology to make his movie look realistic and outstanding. It clearly paid off in spades: the movie went on to gross over 2 billion dollars worldwide, and it became the highest-grossing film in American history.
The success of “Avatar” sent Hollywood running to capitalize on the 3D trend, which led to an oversaturation of 3D films for the next couple of years. Whereas films like “Avatar” were using 3D for purposes of advancing the story and adding new depth to the film, some studios were adding cheap 3D conversion to simply take a few more dollars from audiences who paid for tickets with the 3D surcharge.
Eventually, audiences got the hint.
“Where 2D and 3D versions are competing in the same multiplex, audiences in 2011 and 2012 were choosing the 2D versions with a frequency that was dismaying to theatre chains,” Hagopian said. “Apparently, the novelty of 3D is waning, and audiences are less willing to pay the 3D upcharge.”
In response, Hagopian said some theaters began simply only showing the 3D versions of films, forcing audiences to pay the surcharge.
Some audience members felt the use of 3D was being used too freely.
“I can see the advantage of the format, especially for more action-based or cinematic films,” Wolff (freshman–meterology) said. “But I have no want or need to see the latest Adam Sandler movie or “The King’s Speech” in 3D.”
Still, 3D is a powerful player in the film industry. In a new turn of events, 3D has become a popular medium for old films being re-released in theaters. In September 2011, Disney re-released “The Lion King” for a two-week re-release with a 3D conversion. The re-release was a huge hit that theaters carried the new version into the new year, and the film added another $94.2 million to its profit.
Immediately, Disney and other studios reached into their vault to convert classics into 3D. Last year alone, six blockbusters, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Titanic,” and “Finding Nemo,” were re-released with the 3D conversion.
But, as could have almost been expected, none of these re-releases matched the success of “The Lion King.” Disney even canceled a 3D conversion for “The Little Mermaid.” Still, at least two films this year are already scheduled for a 3D conversion, a sign that Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on the revived medium.
“Some distributors have banked a great deal on the future of 3D, making most of their big-budgeted productions available in 3D,” Hagopian said.
January of this year alone has already seen two 3D releases in “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” and there are scheduled to be nearly twenty 3D releases by the end of 2013.
“If there is a film that has a good story and is filmed in 3D, I am much more likely to go see it in 3D,” said Wolff.
Hagopian, meanwhile, envisions a future where 3D is relegated to home entertainment as a “niche technology.”
“[3D] isn’t going to bring people to the movies as its advocates had promised,” Hagopian said. “Only good movies will do that.”