Friday, 14 March 2014

3DCS 2014: Reflections on a year in 3D

3DCS (the 3D Creative Summit) was held on Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th March. This is my 3rd year at the summit, and I wanted to offer some opinions and reflections on the event while it's all still fresh in my mind. Overall, I saw some great panels, and met some interesting people from different industry and specialist group backgrounds - as ever, Ravensbourne and its partners are to be commended for putting on such an interesting event.

I should state at the top that I didn't see all the panels, and had to leave after the (pre-recorded) James Cameron interview at 3pm on the Thursday, so this is necessarily a partial account. However, I think I saw enough to point up some interesting debates / recurring themes that ran across most of what I did see.

1. The Gravity of the Situation

During the Wednesday sessions, I tweeted the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that, if there had been a 3DCS bingo card / drinking game, anyone with Gravity would have been quids in / inebriated. Gravity was this year's Life of Pi - by which I mean it was the film everyone at 3DCS kept referring to as the justification for 3D's future. Any reference to critics, native vs conversion, the creative vision of the director (see below), box office return... Gravity was the go-to example. Yet, to me, this pointed up one of the elephants in the room - which is that there was only ONE Gravity, and it is a film that struggles to offer a model for future 3D productions. The financial future for 3D appears to be targeting international markets like China, Russia and Germany, but the recurring successes there are mainstream 3D products like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness rather than Gravity (an opinion supported by the upcoming 3D-ification of Robocop for China, and the 3D version of Noah only being shown in strong 3D markets). Yes, 92% of the money Gravity took was from 3D screenings (an amazing achievement) but it doesn't reveal a pattern or approach that others could follow... and that's a real issue that no one appeared eager to address...

2. The Return of the Auteur

This came up in previous years (Ang Lee/Life of Pi; Martin Scorsese/Hugo etc.), but the sense of 'individual creativity' vs. 'mass market popular / mainstream product' was at the heart of every panel I saw this year, and suggests that authorship is a pivot around which the 3D debate is happening. It was a shame that 3DCS had few directors who could actually talk about their 3D approach, because everyone else had an opinion about what they did / should do. There was a lot of talk about 'supporting their vision' and that 3D had to come from the lone directorial voice... but that flies in the face of the communal way that all media is produced. (and don't me started on the gender issue here - James Cameron wasn't the only one who referred - I hope unintentionally - to creative 3D authorship as a male preserve) To reduce 3D to the work of a sole vision is to reduce the contributions that thousands of people make to all the popular 3D movies, and to set up a really unhelpful distinction between 3D 'art' and 3D 'popular entertainment' - unhelpful not least because most audiences SEE the latter, not the former. It's also a assumption around cultural worth that demonstrates that, consciously or not, the industry remains embarrassed by some of the 3D offering out there, even if it is demonstrably popular. 3Ds continued success won't be won by art, it will be won by good popular entertainment.

3. Limited 3D Product on Display

So, remove Gravity from the discussion, and the number of film and TV titles being discussed multiple times, and in multiple panels, dropped way down. (i.e. Hidden Kingdom was mentioned a lot in the panel on Hidden Kingdom, but not much in other places) This, again, mirrors last year's discussion of Life of Pi, but what was noticeable was that many of the titles that were discussed were actually titles that had been talked about at last year's event as well (Stalingrad, Hidden Kingdom, Dredd). The sense of NEW product, new exciting experiments and work, was mostly lacking. There was a panel about a Jeunet 3D film, a panel on Wenders' 3D TV show... but there was less excitement about upcoming product than I expected. Some were name-checked (Jim Chabin mentioned half a dozen in his energetic defence of 3D) but few apart from possibly Godzilla, made any noticeable impact.

This tends to support points made by a number of speakers around alternative 3D media: 3D TV is falling off, 3D internet hasn't really taken off, 3D streaming is out there but, like 3D Blu-Ray, has yet to make real inroads... the view from several speakers (including Cameron) was that auto-stereoscopy would have to happen before a wider range of new and exciting product can be addressed. Cinema largely stands alone in the 3D world at the moment, and that feels like a backwards step from previous years of this event, where TV was more prevalent. Mainstream narrative cinema remains dominant as well, with little alternative content in 3D (interesting to note that Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special was one of the sole 3D alternative content offerings last year) - again, a noticeable drop in the range of material being produced.

4. Industry and Academia remain at arms length

The 3DCS research strand was bigger this year (and arguably better, given the range of work on display). But the academics were largely talking to each other, while industry was largely talking to itself, and never the twain shall meet. I'm biased, obviously, given I'm an academic that gave a talk about empirical research on audiences, 3D and film trailers - that was well received by fellow academics. Industry attendees might have been interested in my talk (or any number of the other talks I saw), but all the academic talks were scheduled against the big industry panels and were in the BFI Blue Room, which required a bit of effort to track down! I think the opinions of speakers like Nick Jones and Lisa Purse would have sat well alongside the producers and industry spokespeople I saw, yet an invisible line still divides these two sections of the programme.

5. Marketing

I went to a few business-focused panels, and my own research is often around marketing materials such as the film trailer, but one of the key messages I kept hearing was that marketing of 3D wasn't as strong as it could be, and that the industry needed to do more to 'win back' the audiences lost through "bad' 3D product. Adrian Wootton (from Film London) claimed that Gravity (bingo!) had wiped the "bad 3D" slate clean with the audience, but most of the other speakers I heard think there's still some work to be done here. To return to point 1, one film does not a summer make.

So those are my immediate reflections. None of the above is intended to criticise the people who organised 3DCS, or the speakers I saw. But I think it does suggest that below the surface of the event (and, arguably, the international 3D industry), there exist tensions that have not yet been solved or addressed.

I look forward to 3DCS 2015 to see if that picture changes in the next year.