The all new 3D silence: an indication the third dimension has at last been welcomed by audiences, or merely tacit resignation?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, almost every visit to a film site would have you clicking through endless diatribes of the hotly debated views surrounding 3D cinema. Albeit hovering uncertainly in cinemas on and off since the 50s, it was Avatar in 2009 that essentially detonated the 3D explosion, with director James Cameron bragging that the film had been built from the ground up for over a decade with 3D in mind, and heralding new 3D technology to boot. It smashed box office records and wowed audiences the world over, breathing new life in to a cash cow that would soon have industry executives rubbing their hands with glee. But even after the initial hysteria around the new wave of so-called ‘RealD’ technology, the web remained awash with naysayers. In fact, by the end of 2010, following Avatar’s triumphant release only a year earlier, critics and pundits were already harbingering the decline and inexorable doom of 3D [1][2][3][4], and by the fall of 2012, 3D was widely regarded a dying format [5][6][7][8][9]. Yet here we are, at the close of another year replete with 3D releases, and there is an unsettling, ominous silence. The detractors are mute, the fever has subsided – is it resignation or acceptance?

Back in October 2012, a reader poll in SFX found that 42.25% of respondents “hate” 3D, with a further 28% saying that they “can’t see 3D” or it causes them problems. Only 13.75% responded positively [10]. Albeit a very specific sample and a year ago, the response still seems to bear true now:

When the good Doctor Who traversed his 50th anniversary episode in the third dimension for the first time last Saturday, it was ironically the BBC’s last 3D broadcast; they cited a “lack of appetite” for the format. A lack of appetite seems a fair assessment. Earlier this year Despicable Me 2 achieved only 27 percent of its opening weekend gross from 3D ticket sales. Before that Monsters University attained only 31 percent. The Great Gatsby, a film heavily sold on it’s implementation of 3D, also opened with only 33 percent of sales from 3D tickets [11], World War Z with only 34 percent [12]. In April, a study by Fitch Ratings [13] preempted this declension and predicted a fall in 3D admissions noting, “the initial excitement has dwindled, and consumers are focused again on the overall quality of the film…weighing the cost of a premium ticket versus a base 2-D ticket.”

It seems to be true then that audiences are rejecting 3D, but rather than listen and adapt, the industry merely amends its marketing tactics. They offer less 2D screenings, combine 2D blu-ray releases with their 3D counterparts (both to inflate the selling price and to argue that purchases show a strong demand for 3D), and now they promote 3D as the cornerstone of their pictures, as the feature that makes them worth watching, a disorientating strategem for viewers, who are left wondering, “if I watch in 2D, will I have an inferior experience, will it be incomplete, will I miss out?” Sales tactics for The Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit, all strongly focused on the “immersive experience” 3D was offering, and with Alfonso Cuaron’s new 3D hit Gravity, the trend is no different. In this instance it has clearly worked, with over 80% of it’s US box office opening coming from 3D ticket sales. Chris Parks, the stereo supervisor on Gravity, declares that the film was “conceived in 3D”, although he does go on to concede that “the majority of the films that I’ve seen in 3D this year were not worth seeing and I’d have much rather seen them in 2D.” [14] This is the new norm: accompanying every new 3D release, the inevitable trumpeting of its 3D implementation.

James Cameron, the saviour of 3D, argues that “it’s absolutely inevitable that entertainment will be 3D, it’ll all be 3D eventually, because that’s how we see the world. When it’s correct and convenient for us, we pre-select for that as the premium experience.”[15]

My worry: that preselection is happening for us, not by us.

If a film is available in 3D, you can bet your bottom dollar that 2D screening opportunities will be decimated. This is by design. Take for example the release of Prometheus last year, for which only 30% of the theatrical releases were in 2D [16], or Dredd, whose distributor Lionsgate actively denied requests from cinemas for 2D prints [17], aiming for an almost exclusively 3D release. Or Resident Evil: Retribution, also purportedly screened in 2D, but nigh on impossible to find [18]. Or Iron Man 3, screened only twice in 2D at my local cinema, despite 3D screenings two or three times a day… In fact, in the same Picturehouse at the time of writing, Gravity 2D is screened three times in 3D for every one 2D showing, whilst over in a nearby Vue, Gravity is currently screening eight times daily in 3D, with no 2D alternative.

I would normally tout choice in a marketplace. Broadly speaking, I approve of maximising options for the consumer. However, in too many cases cinemas don’t actually offer that choice, even if their marketing pretends otherwise. Often, the scant 2D screenings that are available are timetabled during the daytime, or midweek, hours that are totally unfeasible for your average cinema goer.

This isn’t only a gripe on the grounds of irritation. One vocal anti-3D critic began the website ‘Where’s my 2D’ [19] with a campaign against 3D on the grounds that it discriminates against visually impaired audiences. Founder Sarah Fones writes: “Approximately 12% of the UK, including me and a number of my friends, can’t see or struggle with the 3D effect used by cinemas. We feel we are being discriminated against by film distributors, who are actively reducing – or otherwise limiting – the availability of 2D film screenings. It is our belief that this is purely to increase the profitability of 3D screenings in a market where their profitability is on the wane.” Sadly, despite picking up some traction among mainstream film sites, the website hasn’t been updated since February. I hope she hasn’t given up.

My own complaints to my local cinema have either gone unanswered or entirely unacknowledged, albeit I am a member and regular attendee. The fact is, cinemas and distributors don’t want 2D when 3D is an alternative, it’s bad business. For every film a viewer watches in 3D, the box office takes a few more quid, leading to an obvious, if wilfully consumer unfriendly business model, a self-fulfilling, self-aggrandising cycle: 3D films aren’t readily available so people are forced to watch in 2D, boosting 3D viewing figures and suggesting a strong demand for 3D movies, which is then catered for with the same restricted release patterns as the last round of 3D films further reinforcing the whole sham market.

Despite a decline in audience enthusiasm, 3D films are showing no sign of going away. On the contrary, this strong entry from Gravity will have wet taste buds again, Robocop is on the horizon, and beyond that, Avatar 2 will no doubt aim to cause another splash. In the meantime, viewers are left with a difficult dilemma. They can hunt for 2D, protest and dissent, or roll over, give up and resign themselves to 3D domination. I, for one, will not stop complaining.