With movie-ticket sales flat, the film industry is looking for a way to entice audiences back into the theater with new digital 3-D technology. Big name directors and major studios all have 3-D projects in the works, but Portfolio Magazine's Kevin Maney says many hurdles remain before 3-D becomes commonplace.
KERRY NOLAN: This is On the Media. I'm Kerry Nolan. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When you look at the raw numbers, the film industry seems to be doing pretty well, especially when compared to the music and television industries. Box office revenue for 2007 was 9.6 billion dollars, up five percent from the previous year. But that increase almost entirely reflects a boost in ticket prices.
As the population has grown, the number of tickets sold has remained flat, and with advances in the picture and sound quality of home theaters, the ubiquity of DVDs and increasingly cinematic video games, the film industry is looking to restore the Cineplex as an indispensable entertainment destination. But how?
Some of their hopes lie in utilizing new digital 3‑D technology. The next Pixar film will be in 3‑D as will re‑releases of the first two Toy Story movies. James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis all have 3‑D movies in production and DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg has announced that all of its future animated films will boldly go into the third dimension.
Kevin Maney, a writer for Portfolio Magazine, thinks there are still some serious hurdles the industry must overcome for 3‑D to be the cure for all of the industry's woes. But Maney also says the technology is a far cry from the cardboard glasses and blurry images from the previous generation of 3‑D films. KEVIN MANEY: The difference is huge. The new technology is so much better. So in the old days, you had two images that a projectionist had to overlap in a certain way and put together.
And as the film played, sometimes it moved a little bit or, you know, the second reel went in, it wasn't quite lined up where the first reel was, so the people watching it would get headaches and nausea. So, you know, I mean, that was quite a great way to sell a movie. BOB GARFIELD: Or popcorn. KEVIN MANEY: [LAUGHS] Popcorn, yeah, really, exactly. And these days it's all digital, so there's no moving parts. And it's rock‑solid, so that gets away from all of the headache/nausea problems.
The glasses are not two different colors. They're actually polarized lenses that make one eye see one image, one eye see the other, which actually combined, makes the 3‑D image in your brain. So it's really, it's much more of an effective kind of solution. BOB GARFIELD: Not long ago, I experienced some of the modern 3‑D technology. It was in a short film at the museum, and it truly was stunning. But so stunning, actually, that I don't even remember what the film was about. I mean, it's kind of antithetical to storytelling. KEVIN MANEY: Hmm. BOB GARFIELD: And if storytelling is the heart of moviemaking, is there no risk that the technology will just overwhelm what Hollywood has always done best, and that's spin a narrative? KEVIN MANEY: That's something that hopefully will get taken care of when you get some really A‑list directors, folks like James Cameron, trying to do 3‑D movies and using the 3‑D technology as a part of the storytelling, as a way to enhance the story and not play tricks.
Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is the first big live‑action 3‑D movie — it's, you know, out this summer — is an example of — there's a lot of just playing with the technology, doing gratuitous things, like having birds fly out at you or an antenna poked right towards you. It's not serving the story.
That will change as the technology matures and as directors who are really more interested in telling a story, get ahold of it. BOB GARFIELD: One answer might be that eventually people will be so accustomed to it, like they are accustomed to color and sound, that they won't be comfortable unless they're watching a film in 3‑D. But I gather that nobody really think that anyone's going to re-release the works of Ingmar Bergman ‑ KEVIN MANEY: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: — you know, in three dimensions. KEVIN MANEY: No, I don't think so. I think the small films, the things that are about two people, you know, talking, there's no real reason to have those be in 3‑D. Maybe way down the line somewhere, but probably in the short term, no.
The way that people in Hollywood have explained it to me is, that they think that there will be a time in the near future when everybody expects the big blockbuster movie, something like a Titanic or Indiana Jones, you know, 27 [LAUGHS], something that you'd expect it to be in 3‑D. BOB GARFIELD: You talk about a chicken-and-egg proposition in your piece, the idea that theaters have to spend like 100,000 dollars per screen to equip theaters with 3‑D and they don't want to do that unless there's a marketplace. But the marketplace depends on the ability to project 3‑D films. How is that going to play out?
KEVIN MANEY: Well, one of the things that Hollywood's trying to do is, actually, the studios are trying to combine together and put together a big financing package to actually help pay for the 3‑D systems to go into theaters.
Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks has been pushing this hard for the past six months or a year and has really not had much success in striking a deal that really works. But Hollywood definitely knows that this isn't going to work unless they can convince the movie theaters to put in this expensive equipment.
Journey to the Center of the Earth, when it came out in July, Walden Media, which financed it, originally expected there would be 1700 theaters that would be fully equipped with 3‑D to do this. It turned out there were maybe 1,000 or 1100, so that really squashed some of its plans for the big 3‑D rollout.
Katzenberg is hoping there's going to be 5,000 theaters that are 3‑D‑ready by, like, next year, and it's not even going to come close. BOB GARFIELD: There's another problem. If the movie industry is indeed threatened by home video and by video games and experiences that you can have, you know, without having to schlep to the multiplex — KEVIN MANEY: Mm‑hmm. BOB GARFIELD: — TV is going to be 3‑D‑ready pretty soon. Is it possible that this technology will essentially skip the theatrical exhibition industry altogether and take root in our own family rooms? KEVIN MANEY: Actually, since the piece came out, there was an interesting development, which was that the MPAA, the Hollywood representative, they started talking about trying to create a standard for 3‑D for home television, which would seem to undermine this idea of putting 3‑D into movie theaters as a way to get people out of their homes and into movie theaters.
I talked with an interesting sort of human economist named Tyler Cowen, and he made the point that people don't go to the movie theater necessarily to see a movie. They go because it's a destination. It's sort of a predefined kind of situation and amount of time. And there's some entertainment that's involved, too, and gives you something to talk about afterwards.
If that's true, then trying to increase the fidelity of that experience, it's not a way to really change the way people think about going out to the movies. So what is the way?
The industry is experimenting a lot right now, trying to make theaters more of a social place, more of like a lounge or a club with couches and waitress service and things like that, and actually maybe encouraging people to talk instead of saying, sit there and shut up, you know, because everybody's watching the movie.
So it's a little bit more of a social thing, and maybe that will add enough to the experience to make people want to come out. BOB GARFIELD: Kevin Maney writes for Portfolio Magazine. His latest piece is titled The 3‑D Dilemma. Thanks very much. KEVIN MANEY: You're welcome.