Yesterday, Universal announced that they'd shifted their hopeful Tom Cruise blockbuster "Oblivion" into April to make way for a prime, heart-of summer slot for a movie that will be twenty years old in 2013 — a 3D re-jig of Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," the one-time biggest hit of all time. And it's one of a wave of these stereo-ized re-releases, from last fall's surprise hit "The Lion King" and February's "Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace" (with the sequels planned to hit over the next five years) to next month's "Titanic 3D."
Re-releases are by no means something new. In the days before VHS, and even television, giant hits like "Gone with the Wind" and "The Sound of Music" would cycle around every few years; it's among the reasons that, when adjusted for inflation, they're the most successful movies in history. George Lucas got everyone amped for the "Star Wars" prequels by re-mastering the original films and putting them back in theaters in 1997. And those in their mid twenties, like this writer, can remember seeing Disney classics like "Bambi" and "Cinderella" when the studio brought them back for limited theatrical runs — it's no surprise that the company has been all over this new trend, with 3D returns for "Finding Nemo," "Monsters Inc." and "The Little Mermaid" all announced and scheduled.
Even beloved '80s classics like "Ghostbusters" and "Back to the Future" have seen brief theatrical runs of late, albeit not in 3D, and mainly to help shift DVDs. It's clear that a new trend is developing with the studios of late: above and beyond the mania for sequels and reboots, nostalgia is taking over the release schedule.
In fairness, nostalgia is taking over the entertainment industry in general. The post-Baby Boom Gen-Xers were the first generation to place a disproportionate importance on pop culture. They grew up with MTV and VHS, they played the first video games, they saw the early blockbusters by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and their contemporaries in theaters. They've now grown up, and even their successors, the Gen-Yers (or Millennials), the Internet era, are starting to creep into their thirties, get married, have kids.
And while they consume new media of all kinds, they hold an enormous, near-blind affection for the stuff they loved as kids. And this is why you get bands reuniting to play their classic albums front and back in full before adoring fans, why you can now download SNES games onto your iPhone, why Bret Easton Ellis seems to be working on an "American Psycho" follow-up, and why movie geeks seem to like nothing more than buying prints of minimalist posters with imagery from "Back to the Future."
And clearly, the studios have decided they can make a pretty penny from this. Remakes and sequels are riskier by comparison. But if they can slap a stereoscopic lick of paint on an old favorite that's otherwise unchanged, studios can clearly make a profit (without much investment). Look no further than the additional $94 million "The Lion King" made in 3D last September, thanks both to Millennials who were kids wanting to see how it held up, and by parents introducing their kids to a bona-fide Disney classic, with the extra dimension and limited time in theaters giving the added feeling of an event, something which helps to set the film apart in an era where a tentpole hits every couple of weeks, even in the off-season.
If we were betting men, we'd place a few chips on "Titanic" doing even better when it returns to theaters in a few weeks. Fox cannily scheduled advance screenings on Valentine's Day, and have been advertising it all over the place (we've seen trailers the last three times we went to theaters). And perhaps crucially, what we've seen of the footage is the best example yet that post-conversion, even for older movies, can look as good as something shot natively in 3D. A lot of money has been sunk in, but it's up there on the screen.
Not everything has been a runaway success so far: 'The Phantom Menace' disappointed a little, taking just under $100 million worldwide. But even given the costs of conversion (generally thought to be around $10 million, although Cameron is believed to have have spent more on "Titanic") and marketing, that's still an awful lot of new money for old rope, and for a film that has a lot of negatives against it. Rest assured that, when the original trilogy get their theatrical 3D bows starting in 2015, the numbers will be much bigger.
And that's what it comes down to, really. In a culture when Disney can roll the dice on a new property like "John Carter" and take a bath on it, taking proven quantities and giving them a 3D sheen to pick up another $100 million or so (as well as likely boosting any DVD or Blu-Ray sales as a by-product) seems like a no-brainer, especially when nostalgia-hungry crowds are so eager to lap them up.
It's not going to work for every film, obviously. The 3D boost doesn't work without spectacle, so it's unlikely that you're going to see "The Godfather 3D" any time soon, even if that film was once the biggest hit of all time. We're looking at stuff from the late '70s onwards, the post-Spielberg era: "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," et al., through to "Independence Day" and "Lord of the Rings" (the latter of which is certainly in the works). All that being said, who's to say that if these re-releases keep landing, we won't eventually see "The Exorcist 3D," or "Casablanca 3D"?
There are directors who'll resist the change if they possibly can: Christopher Nolan leading the charge of the 3D refuseniks (choosing the enormity of IMAX instead). But the hold-outs aside, this is going to happen more and more, and it's a bit grim, another sign of a movie culture that's looking backwards, rather than forwards. So we'd suggest that you do what we're planning to do. Instead of seeing "Titanic 3D" on April 6th, we'll put out money down for, say, Whit Stillman's "Damsels In Distress." Instead of seeing "Finding Nemo 3D" on September 14th, we'll go see Ben Affleck in "Argo." Don't go and see something old, try and find something new you can love in the same way. It's the only way they'll learn.