Is Cinema’s New World Old News?

An all new world awaits. Or at least this is what James Cameron would have us believe. The line, taken from an early teaser poster for the celebrated director’s 2009 3-D cinema phenomenon Avatar, promised us something mysterious, exciting, and, most importantly, something new. All that was required of us was choosing to make the journey to this new world. And, naturally, pay for the journey ourselves. The new world is a business, after all.

And pay we did. Avatar quickly became the highest grossing film of all-time (surpassing Cameron’s previous film Titanic, which had reigned supreme for twelve years), eventually earning a whopping US$2.8 billion world-wide. But were we truly getting something new? Couldn’t some of us remember similar promises made decades earlier? Promises that were swiftly broken, leaving some to wonder if they were ever made at all?

Could Cameron’s new world, birthed out of the big bang of digital 3-D technology, be in danger of collapsing into the black hole of cinematic history like so many gimmicks before it?

Very few studies have been carried out into the 100 year history of 3-D cinema, but Dr. Miriam Ross wants to change that. Alongside her role as lecturer and honours co-ordinator for the film programme at Victoria University, Dr. Ross is conducting research into the current, ‘third wave’ of widely distributed 3-D, specifically the audience response and whether or not the format is here to stay, or will quickly fade away, as has been the case in the past.

With this ‘new wave’ of 3-D, suddenly critics fell into two camps”, Dr. Ross explains. “Firstly the people who thought ‘fantastic, this is amazing, something completely different and new and exciting,’ and the other camp who were really frustrated and thought ‘this is just another 3-D wave, another cheap gimmick, and it’s going to disappear.’ This was around 2008, but we’re in 2011 now, and there doesn’t seem to be any realistic sense of it slowing down.” Her enthusiasm for the format is clear, suggesting that Dr. Ross herself falls into the first camp, and her passion for film is visible all around her office, from the trade journal articles open and waiting to be pored over on her computer screen, to the shelves of DVDs and film posters that adorn the walls.

Indeed, from a mainstream exhibition standpoint, the volume of 3-D content seems only to be increasing. “On my tentative release schedule from the studios I can see at least seventeen 3-D films releasing in 2012 alone”, says Marcus Fenson, area manager for Event Cinemas, “including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s Tin Tin, a re-release of James Cameron’s Titanicin 3-D, all six Star Wars movies re-mastered by George Lucas in 3-D and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, emphasising the importance of big-name talent moving the technology forward.

However, in spite of this volume of content being produced, the initial increase in ticket sales for films arguably produced to cash in on the new technology appears to be slowing down, at least in the US. Trade journals such as Variety Magazine tracking the box office numbers indicate a significant drop in 3-D attendance in relation to 2-D, with some suggesting that the quality of the films themselves, rather than the technology, is to blame. Despite this, some interesting things are happening in the 3-D world, and Dr. Ross’ excitement about the potential for 3-D cinema seems especially justified now

This year was the first time we had really independent, art-house movies come out in 3-D, with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders’ Pina. It was interesting because both directors were really happy to use that format for those specific films. Herzog’s point was that for him to really show the depth and scale of those cave paintings it had to be in 3-D”, she says, referring to two films recently screened at the New Zealand Film Festival.

The implications of non-Hollywood filmmakers like Herzog and Wenders experimenting with the technology suggests the future of 3-D is shaping up to be a fascinating period in cinema history. From amid a sea of yellow and green balloons (preparations for the theatre’s ‘Reel Brazil’ festival are in full swing), Kate Larkindale, manager of Wellington’s premier art-house cinema the Paramount is obviously enthused.

Pina was fantastic. You were on stage with the dancers, you could see every ripple of muscle and every drop of sweat. That is the film that has convinced me that there is some value in 3-D in the cinema, because it fully immerses you in the performance, and you could never see any other dance performance from the perspective you can see in that 3-D film.”

Larkindale admits there is potential for independent producers to work in 3-D, but truthfully has seen little interest in the new format from her audience. “At this stage art-house films just aren’t made in 3-D really. Basically 3-D is for blockbusters and animation more than anything else.”

The positive thing about this adoption of the format by independents is that filmmakers seem to be recognising that rather than this being a career shift, a progression into 3-D filmmaking, it’s seen as a specific tool, which they can use for specific types of films”, Dr. Ross continues, yet some skepticism remains. “Unfortunately though, Herzog for example is unlikely to make another film concerned with that type of image, so he’s probably not going to make another 3-D film.”

The question remains though: is 3-D here to stay? Fenson doesn’t read too much into questions surrounding the perceived drop at the box-office of 3-D compared to their traditional 2-D counterparts. “While we do follow the box-office trends overseas, I find that 3-D films are always compared to Avatar. The problem is with Avatar being the most successful film of all time, it’s difficult to compete. It is important to note that the 2-D version of the film was also well supported but it was the 3-D that got most of the media attention as it was a new format.”

Dr. Ross notes that the higher ticket price for 3-D makes research on audience taste problematic. “This type of thing introduces many different variables which make analysis very difficult. It gives less of an idea of whether audiences like the 3-D effects or not, but whether or not they like them enough for people to pay the higher ticket prices.” Evidence from mainstream audiences seems to suggest that as long as the quality of the product is good, then people will pay. “Most customers are not put off by the higher ticket price if they believe the experience will be a good one”, concludes Fenson.

Yet in a difficult financial period, customers are undeniably feeling the sting of higher prices, and several industry heavy-hitters have taken notice. At a recent press conference to promote Tin Tin, Spielberg and Jackson spoke out against the higher ticket prices, suggesting that price differentiation between 2-D and 3-D is perhaps starting to backfire. But removing this differentiation is, unfortunately for consumers, unlikely anytime soon.

It is important to note at this point that distributors will not be supplying 35mm prints beyond 2012, meaning all cinemas in the country must be converted to digital by 2013 – a big investment!” says Fenson. “Taking a cinema from being fitted with 35mm projectors to a whole new system and financing out of their own pockets is a big hit for the industry to take. Ticket prices for 3-D are higher than 2-D to help finance the move to digital technology.”

Interestingly, while the price hikes brought on by the new technology are the biggest single complaint from audiences and likely part of the reason for attendance rates falling, the reality is that this huge level of investment at all stages of filmmaking, from initial conception and production right through to distribution and exhibition, may in fact benefit the format in the long run. Dr. Ross sees this investment as crucial to the long-term survival of the format. “What happened in the past was, as the craze died out, the exhibition technology left the cinemas. In the ‘50s it died out quite quickly, and even if filmmakers wanted to keep working in 3-D, they had nowhere to show their movies.”

Certainly this seems to be the point where multiplex exhibitors and academic research are in agreement. “With this many high profile directors supporting the 3-D technology, either to enhance their stories for a new generation or to tell new stories, it’s hard to argue that there is any real chance of the format disappearing and being just a gimmick of a generation”, Fenton optimistically states, an argument which Dr. Ross supports, based on her extensive research. “There are enough filmmakers who really love working with 3-D who will keep supplying content, and this time around there’s always going to be movie theatres equipped, so if there’s anything made, there will always be places to show it.”

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