If digital projection was a necessary upgrade for the new millennium, 3D was its poster girl. The immersive, cinema-only experience promised to bring in more viewers and keep the moviegoing excursion a special event. When James Cameron debuted Avatar in 2009, 3D was praised for its cinematic qualities—and naysayers who called it a gimmick were in the minority, at least for the time being.
Now, in 2013, 3D is no longer a novelty. The early highs when half—or more—of a movie’s opening-weekend gross came from 3D have largely subsided. Still, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), half of all moviegoers saw a movie in 3D in 2012, and it seems likely that 3D presentations will continue to account for a slice of ticket sales, especially in the opening weeks. Plus, with recent technological advancements, moviegoers who do like 3D enjoy presentations that look better than ever.
3D by Numbers
Was there a 3D bubble? From 2009 to 2010, the amount of box office from 3D films doubled, rising from $1.1 billion of the U.S./Canada box office to $2.2 billion, according to MPAA-reported figures. The industry was riding high, and studios rushed to release movies either filmed in or converted to 3D. But the very next year, instead of continuing its meteoric rise, 3D box office declined 20%, to a total of $1.8 billion. As initial interest in the format waned, Hollywood was still ramping up its 3D product, leading to a situation where supply rose as demand weakened.
That 20% decline in 3D revenue came in the same time period (2010-2011) that the number of 3D films released increased 170%, from 26 to 45 releases. That meant that the average movie went from earning $85 million from 3D ticket sales to just $40 million. Studios saw the percentage of ticket sales coming from 3D decline. Exhibitors, meanwhile, with their 3D revenue undergoing just a minor decline, increased the number of 3D-equipped screens as more movies released in the format.
Among consumers, there was a feeling that quality dropped as more movies rushed to follow the trend. 2010, after all, was the year the much-maligned 3D conversion of Clash of the Titans released. As viewers became more savvy about the format, they were also more critical of movies that they felt didn’t provide an experience worthy of the upcharge. “It’s really dissatisfying to pay the extra money, take the glasses off, and still be able to watch it with your glasses off,” notes Scott Barden, regional director of digital operations at Malco Theatres Inc., echoing both his own sentiments and feedback he has heard from friends.
By 2012, there were signs that 3D was steadying. Twenty percent fewer movies released in the format, for a total of 36. 3D grosses held, again coming in at $1.8 billion—although that occurred during a period when the total box office grew slightly. Hollywood’s product stream of 3D releases appears to be plateauing: 2013 is on track to release 35 movies in the format, while 2014 already has 28 projects announced in 3D, a number that is sure to rise.
3D by viewers/movies
The good news for the future of the 3D format is its popularity with younger viewers. Over half of those 12 to 24 saw a 3D movie in 2012, while in the oldest demographic, 60+, only 13% saw a 3D movie. As these younger viewers age, there’s a strong likelihood they will continue their 3D-viewing habits. Horror movies, for example, often skew young, and that’s one format A.J. Roquevert, the head film buyer of Starplex Cinemas, cites as performing well in 3D.
Areas with the strongest moviegoing habits also have the most 3D enthusiasts. In New York, where 74% of people are moviegoers and 21% see movies at least once a month, 44% also saw movies in 3D. In Ohio, where just 59% of people are moviegoers and 8% frequent moviegoers, only 21% saw 3D movies. This supports Roquevert’s observation that the format doesn’t play as well in more rural areas. “In the small towns, people don’t want to pay all those upcharges.” Inversely, one of the chain’s best-performing theatres for 3D is in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a well-populated suburb of New York City.
Cinematically, Hollywood has not necessarily lived up to the promise of an immersive 3D experience. Part of the problem is that use of pop-out effects is often conservative, for the comfort of viewers. To get a 3D effect, eyes have to focus in one place while converging in another, which creates illusory depth cues. The longer the eyes do that, the more likely it is viewers will acquire a headache. But the amazing 3D effects in Avatar, like wispy seeds floating in the foreground, remain a bar most directors don’t live up to. “Avatar was a spectacular representation of 3D content,” Barden recalls. There may have been a reason why the 3D movie was filmed in a lush, blue-tinged world. Barden, whose years of technical expertise have given him a trained eye, has noticed that even setting can influence the effectiveness of 3D. “I saw Star Trek in 2D and 3D, and I thought that the 2D picture was better, because the movie is set in space and dark already. 3D benefits more when you have a lot of brightness in the image.” Mike Langdon, Cineplex’s director of communications, calls out Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby and Avatar as films where the Canadian circuit emphasized its 3D showings. “There are certain films where you will try to maximize 3D screenings because of the way that they’re created.”
CG-animated movies are already conceived in 3D, making the format a natural fit. For the smallest viewers, however, wearing glasses can be too squirm-inducing. “We notice if you go to a 3D movie with the younger kids, they will take their glasses off, and just start watching it blurred,” Texas-based Roquevert relays. “The smaller kids—the five, six, seven-year-olds—they don’t like the glasses for some reason. RealD has come out with children’s-sized glasses, which is a good thing, it has helped, but you still end up with some kids taking their glasses off.” Still, during the first week of the release of Despicable Me 2, 45% of the chain’s ticket sales came from 3D, an impressive percentage.
3D by technology
For 3D, the biggest help hasn’t been due to advancements in 3D technology, but from better projectors. The standard light level for a 2D film is 14 foot-lamberts. For a 3D film, the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) regulation is 4.5-foot-lamberts, in recognition of the difficulty the format faces in achieving proper light levels. “I assume it was a bit of a compromise to get that to market, because that was essentially all you could achieve at time,” Adam Cuthbert, executive director of national operations and guest experience for Cineplex, reflects. 3D glasses remove light, as do the polarizers attached to the front of the projector. Watching a 3D film with a xenon bulb at the end of its life can make for a particularly dim experience. The second generation of film projectors, which utilized “full chip” light levels, plus RealD XL technology, solved that problem. “These were huge advancements—giving you double the light level on screen,” Cuthbert explains. Cineplex still has Series 1 projectors, but the chain uses them only on screens that exclusively show 2D pictures.
In addition to projectors that throw much more light on the screen, a number of other tweaks have helped improve the 3D viewing experience. “The landscape of 3D technology has grown drastically in the past five years,” Cuthbert says. RealD, which Cineplex uses for 3D, came out with RealD XL, which uses mirrors to double the light and illuminate 3D screens up to 80 feet, compared to the original system’s 45-foot maximum. Additionally, projector port screens can be replaced with high-luminance windows, which offer incremental increases in the amount of light that passes through. Cineplex uses port windows, Series 2 projectors and high-gain screens to maximize the light. “I’ll be conservative here, but I know we’re achieving eight to nine foot-lamberts fairly consistently, which is double the SMPTE standards,” Cuthbert asserts. “The standard is only 4.5, that’s not our standard,” he emphasizes. “We know increased light levels create that much of a better experience for the guests.”
The next frontier will be laser projection, which is still in its very early stages. “I saw a demonstration of laser projection that was achieving 14 foot-lamberts on a 3D presentation. It’s really nowhere, aside from test environments, but it’s something we’re keeping on our radar once it’s commercially viable.” Unlike xenon bulbs, laser does not lose light levels over time, which would offer a distinct advantage over current bulb-lit projectors.
Strong/MDI recently partnered with RealD to release what they call a “Precision White Screen,” a silver screen that increases total light by 40%, and also looks better in 2D, avoiding the uneven brightness that can occur when 2D films are projected on silver screens. However, avoiding silver screens is one reason Malco chose Dolby 3D early on. “They have a color wheel that spins in between the light source and light engine, which produced a lot more light,” which Barden’s team combined with a high-gain projection screen. The chain has several large screens, ranging from 50 to 68 feet, which require more light. Solutions that addressed those large screens factored into their decision to choose Dolby as their provider. Even now, Malco has two theatres that use dual projectors in order to throw enough light and make sure that their audience remains “overly spoiled with the way we reproduce shows.”
While RealD uses disposable glasses that are recycled at the end of the show, Dolby’s must be collected, washed and reused, a fact which has made them popular abroad, where constant shipments of 3D glasses can be an expensive hassle. In the U.S., Malco, which had also piloted RealD before becoming 100% Dolby, needed to get the message across that these glasses were not for keeping. “Early on with 3D, the audience needed to understand the way we were doing 3D. With RealD, they can keep the glasses, then we switched to Dolby 3D,” Barden recalls. “The glasses are very expensive, and we had customers who were used to keeping glasses—it got to be a major cost initially, we were losing glasses pretty steadily in the first year. Since then, that’s come to a halt, and our audience figured it out.” Barden believes that Dolby 3D “is the best in the industry, and we’re behind them 100%.”
3D and customers
When it comes to programming 3D and 2D screenings, exhibitors have learned to strike a balance that works for viewers who have their own preferred options. “There are some people who don’t like the 3D, and if you only have it on one screen, they’re upset the prime showing at 7:30 p.m. is not in 2D, if you’re showing it in 3D,” Roquevert says. For movies with weaker demand for 3D, he will often program one screen completely in 2D, while another will show a 2D/3D blend. Because switching to 3D requires just a simple lens attachment, 3D-enabled screens can switch back and forth between the formats with ease.
More 3D-capable screens give bookers flexibility during high-traffic periods like the summer and holiday seasons, when multiple 3D pictures are in release. In the U.S. and Canada, 34% of screens are 3D-capable, even though 3D films account for just 16% of the box office, which indicates that most exhibitors are equipped to meet demand. Cineplex, Malco and Starplex have 3D-enabled screens in all sizes of their auditoriums, allowing movies to play in 3D even in their later weeks. But when screen space gets tight, many exhibitors look at the numbers and make a decision about what format to play. Much of the time, that means the 2D wins out. “I think the die-hards who want to see 3D will see it the first few weeks,” Roquevert observes.
The future of 3D may be alongside other premium theatre experiences, including everything from plush, reserved seats to in-theatre dining. 3D is just another feature designed to wow customers. “For all of our premium experiences, UltraAVX, D-BOX, it’s the concept of choice,” explains Langdon. “We give our guests a choice of the level of experience that works for them.” In smaller complexes, Cineplex may default to a 3D showing if a big movie is only playing on one screen, but guests understand that they can see it the following week in 2D. Overall, the format plays well in their circuit. In 2012, 30.9% of Cineplex revenue came from premium experiences, a number that includes 3D as well as other non-3D premium experiences.
Although public figures are hard to come by, overseas 3D plays much better. According to the MPAA, there are more 3D-equipped screens abroad. Over 60% of Asia-Pacific and Latin American screens are equipped with 3D, as well as 53% of EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) screens. The U.S. lags behind, with just 41% 3D-capable screens. Will the U.S. ever catch up, or will 3D bifurcate the market, playing well on international screens while domestic audiences remain cooler to the technology?
The most revealing test for the 3D format is years away, in 2016. How will Avatar 2 do in 3D compared to the original? The original Avatar earned approximately 80% of its domestic gross from 3D, a figure unheard of today. If there’s anyone that can boost the percentage of domestic ticket sales from 3D based on the quality of the product, it’s James Cameron. Until that test point, audiences will continue to sample 3D and 2D pictures in search of brightly lit screens and compelling 3D content.