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The Incredible Shrinking 3-D Audience

The Incredible Shrinking 3-D Audience

While The Great Gatsby
made a lot of money last weekend (box-office pundits said it “overperformed,”
which means they called it wrong), only 33% of ticket buyers chose to see it in
3-D. I take this to mean that people intuited that there was no point to
watching this particular movie through those pesky glasses. Even the box-office
juggernaut Iron Man 3 could only
persuade 45% of its audience to watch it in 3-D. When people have a choice,
which isn’t always the case, a majority prefer to watch most movies in
old-fashioned 2-D.

This isn’t just a matter of Americans becoming disillusioned
by the medium: it comes down to dollars and cents. Why spend an additional $3
for glasses if you don’t have to, especially when so few of these films make
bold or compelling use of the 3-D process? 

can be great fun, and can even enhance the moviegoing experience—but far too
often it’s pointless.

I recently spoke to a producer who has a hot title coming
out next year  and asked if it was going
to be in 3-D. He told me that he isn’t shooting the film that way—few people do
anymore because it’s cumbersome and costly—but it would definitely be released in
3-D because the studio wants to inflate its box-office numbers. It’s just as
simple as that. Those $3 surcharges add up quickly, and line the pockets of
both distributors and theater owners.

Another reason that 3-D isn’t going away is that the novelty
value hasn’t worn off overseas, especially in the movie industry’s most
lucrative new market, China.

So it looks like we’re stuck with 3-D for the foreseeable
future, like it or not. The biggest difference between the current situation
and the 3-D fad of 1953 is that exhibitors didn’t charge extra for glasses back
then. When the combination of mediocre movies and uncomfortable glasses caused interest
to evaporate, they simply stopped making and showing the films in that medium.

The situation became so extreme that the premiere engagement
of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder
became an unintentional litmus test. To quote a definitive article on the
subject by Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, “The World Premiere took place in Grace
Kelly’s hometown of Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 18 at the 2,200 seat Randolph
Theater… After one preview performance on Tuesday and four showings on the
19th, the manager frantically contacted the studio and said that people were
staying away in droves. He asked for permission to drop the 3-D and show it

“On Sunday May 23, a Philadelphia
headline proclaimed: “Play’s the Thing as Philadelphia Fans
Spurn 3-D for 2-D Version of DIAL M.” Mildred Martin wrote: “The
first audiences proved to be a jury that could not only make up its mind, but
could make it up in a hurry. In exhibitors’ own terms, DIAL M literally died.
And after just four performances on Wednesday, some long-distance telephoning to
report complaints, the increasing skimpiness of customers–a good many of them
making no bones of their dissatisfaction–permission was given to throw away
the glasses and hastily switch to the 2-D version. Whereupon business at the
Randolph took a turn for the better.” (To read the whole article, which I
highly recommend, click HERE. 

Today’s movie industry is too greedy to serve the needs and desires
of its core audience: they’ll still soak you for those extra three bucks as
long as they can get away with it. It’s too bad, because indifferent 3-D
discourages people from seeing films like Life
of Pi
that actually make brilliant, creative use of the medium.

Meanwhile, there’s good news on the horizon for 3-D
aficionados: Jeff Joseph and Dennis Bartok are staging a 3rd edition
of the World 3-D Expo at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood from September 6-15
this year. You can learn more at but suffice it to say that this is an event you don’t want to miss. In addition
to recently restored digital presentations, the producers will be screening
original 35mm prints in dual-system projection, which has to be seen to be
fully appreciated. Kiss Me Kate, House of
Wax, Inferno, The French Line, It Came from Outer Space
, and other gems
will be shown along with a number of rarities—like a 1946 Russian adaptation of
Robinson Crusoe. I’ll fill in more
details as the date grows closer.


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