Thursday, 2 June 2011

The rise and fall (and rise?) of 3-D

Current writing on 3-D tends towards the 'why won't it die?' camp, as if 3-D is some kind of horror / sci-fi monster that never dies, just lies dormant until someone finds the money to fund the inevitable sequel.
The normal riposte to such claims is that audiences are still going to see 3-D, so it must still have some level of popularity among cinemagoers.
Well, if you're anti-3-D (and agree with the likes of Mark Kermode, Roger Ebert, David Mitchell and, more recently, Edgar Wright), then this week the New York Times had some welcome stereoscopic relief for you:
In one sense, it is like every article on 3-D: there is a reference to 3-D as a novelty attraction (3-D is 'gimmicky'), there is a subtle reference to the technology's (limited) links to specific blockbusters and genres (3-D is sci-fi / horror / juvenilia), and there is a reliance on U.S. box office statistics to 'prove' that 3-D is no longer a success. Specfically, here, that Pirates of the Caribbean 4 did made 47% of its money in 3-D ticket sales, while Kung Fu Panda 2 made only 45%).
Yet, if we pause and think about those numbers, they also reveal that almost 50% of cinema audiences are still watching new movies in 3-D in their first weekends on release (which is what the figures are actually counting, not full release stats). And that in itself is quite impressive because, although the ratio of 3-D ticket money is less than, say, Avatar levels, Avatar had no competition for those 3-D screens. With Pirates 4, Thor, Jung Fu Panda 2 and others all competing for a limited number of 3-D screens (3-D cinema screens still only account for a 1/3rd of screens worldwide), then the % of 3-D admissions for 1st week box office is likely to fall, film on film. (as more films enter the marketplace)
So, it may be a bit too soon to be using this as conclusive evidence that we should all jump on the '3-D is over' bandwagon.
This is particularly true as the article also reveals that the overseas market for 3-D is significantly stronger than the U.S. one - Screen Digest reported earlier this year that 3-D's continued success is likely to be fuelled by non-U.S. markets. Which is something you would hope the New York Times would remember, seeing as they published another article on 3-D a few days earlier that discussed some of those ideas:
Now, admittedly that's also a piece about the growth of 3-D pornography - specifically the impressive box office success of Hong Kong period drama 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstacy - but it does point to the problems of using box office statistics to prove or disprove anything useful.
(3-D, pornography and representations of women is a whole other blog post that I'll try and get round to later this month)
So, it remains too early to call time on 3-D film. The figures do show a dip, and some suggest a progressive downward trajectory film-by-film - and that could be more worrying, although their cumulative take would also need to be taken into account. But most figures are only the U.S. box office. International returns (at the moment) seem to tell a different story.
And, lest we forget, this isn't a cinema-only process anymore - and (as I've said before) the expansion of 3-D TV, Blu-Ray and the 3DS may end up being the real game-changers for stereoscopic acceptance, not cinema...
(with thanks to Daithi and Michael for pointing those links out to me)


  1. If those movies are taking 45% in 3D, what's the proportion of 3D screens to 2D screens?

    Take Kung Fu Panda, for instance. This weekend at my local Odeon, 3D screenings outnumber 2D by 3:1
    If you want to see a popular new film, you're going to have to go out of your way to see it in 2D.

    So, given the efforts by the film companies to encourage 3D ticket sales, shouldn't it be doing better?

  2. Screen Digest figures from last year show that 3-D screens are about 1/3rd of cinema screens in markets like UK and US. So 2-D screenings technically outweigh 3-D ones - it might be the market is going to be representative of that, so that around 35-40% of most films will get money from 3-D, while the rest will be 2-D.

    If you believe in the free market, then cinema chains won't keep showing 3-D films in 2:1 ratios if the 2-D screening is earning more money / selling more tickets.

    Obviously film companies want to encourage a bump so that 3-D sales are ahead of 2-D, but there is a very limited window for them to make money from 3-D in cinemas (particularly in summer, where every weekend a new blockbuster is out, most likely taking up more of those limited 3-D screens).

  3. 2D screens might outnumber 3D screens in cinemas in general, but you were comparing the screenings of particular 3D films. How many 2D screens were given over to Kung Fu Panda 2 and Pirates 4?

    Most of the existing 2D screens are not being used to show 2D versions of 3D films. They are being used to show films which are native 2D.

    For there to be a fair comparison, you need a film which is equally available in both 2D and 3D and see which one the audience chooses. My money's on people preferring a clearer picture and a lower price.

  4. To be fair, I was pointing out that this is how recent articles are talking about 3-D screenings and admission percentages, and trying to present an alternative reading of those figures.

    There are, as far as I can see, no exact figures that chart the 2D releases of 3D films. However, a quick look at the Odeon website for 3 random cinemas:

    Kung Fu Panda 1 - 1 x 2 -D, 1 x 3-D
    Pirates 4 - 1 x 2-D, 2 x 3-D (difficult to tell based on website, but seems likely)
    Thor - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D

    So, that's a ratio that slightly privileges 3-D.

    Kung Fu Panda - 1 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D
    Pirates 4 - 1 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D
    Thor - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D
    Rio - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D
    JLS 3-D - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D

    So, again, a slight 3-D bias there, but again not huge.

    JLS 3-D - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D
    Kung Fu Panda - 2 x 2-D, 2 x 3-D (inc. IMAX)
    Pirates 4 - 1 x 2-D, 2 x 3-D (inc IMAX)
    Rio - 1 x 2-D, 0 x 3-D
    Thor - 0 x 2-D, 1 x 3-D

    Which, taking the average, is close to a 50/50 split.

    So, that's what available - what we still don't know, however, is any UK figures for these screens, or even what audiences THINK of the 3-D experience.

  5. That may be true for the physical screens in use, but if you look at the number of screenings (that is, opportunities to watch in a week), there is a larger bias:

    Kung Fu Panda: 3 x 2D 5 X 3D
    Pirates: 17 x 2D 48 x 3D

    Almost 3 times as many opportunities to watch Pirates in 3D as for 2D.

    Pirates: 6 x 2D 24 x 3D

    Four to one!

  6. I'm concerned we're going round in circles here (and largely agreeing) - and my screen-counting example isn't helping things.

    What's most interesting to me here is the sense that 3-D should 'be doing better' (to use your words). At the moment there are far more 3-D screens (and screenings) than there are 2-D (although having started to compare Odeon and Vue websites, as we have here, points out that numbers do fluctuate day by day in the case of some cinemas!) and this makes sense, as industries try to sell 'the new.'

    One of the points I was making above is that, although 3-D is still being hyped, the percentage of 3-D screens (33%) might end up shaking out as the rough percentage of money a 3-D film makes IF (and it's a big IF) the U.S. box office statistics are correct (our UK cinema comparisons are suggestive, but don't offer a direct correlation).

    The great unknown here is whether that percentage would go UP if more screens converted to 3-D or (as you're arguing) people are actively seeking out the 2-D versions.

    Given 3-D production costs are coming down (15% above 2-D costs), then that might still make business sense for Hollywood and other film industries to keep investing.

    Because, as both articles note above, 3-D can still increase the box office appeal of CERTAIN films - it might be the market needs to see a range of 3-D options before it settles down?