Depth Charge

The third (and possibly last) wave of theatrical 3-D is in full swing

Feb 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

As part of a major promotional push for its new computer-animated feature Monsters vs. Aliens, Paramount/DreamWorks served up a 3-D commercial during the Super Bowl, made possible by glasses given away at retail displays. As a result, we were able to see the future of theatrical 3-D — only not in the way you might think.

At first glance, the future for theatrical 3-D might seem to be so bright you gotta wear those polarized shades: As many as 11 3-D releases are currently scheduled for release during the rest of 2009, following on the heels of Coraline (which made 70 percent of its opening-weekend box office in 3-D theaters, though they accounted for only 40 percent of its screens) and My Bloody Valentine. Disney/Pixar has already announced that all of its future animated features will be shot for 3-D exhibition, with DreamWorks following along. From horror films to action films, from kid flicks to concerts, it seems like you can’t sit down in a theater seat without something jumping out of the screen at you.

We’ve been down this road before, of course. In the early 1950s, Bwana Devil led a surge of 3-D releases, mostly monster movies and gimmicky thrillers. Thirty years later, there was another wave of 3-D for another generation, including cheesy action (Comin’ At Ya!, Metalstorm) and a seemingly infinite number of “Part 3’s.” Both fads only lasted a few years before petering out.

This time, however, it’s supposed to be different. Conventional wisdom says that digital projection technology has changed the game, replacing the old-school anaglyphic (red-and-blue) format that caused so many literal and figurative headaches. Filmmakers are using the process for a full immersive experience rather than a chance to throw stuff at the audience, reducing the number of movies that exist only for their 3-D effects. The Golden Age of 3-D, we are assured, is most definitely upon us.

A brief look at history might not paint such a rosy depth perception: Both previous waves of theatrical 3-D emerged as responses to specific perceived threats to theatrical moviegoing. In the early 1950s, it was the rise of television; in the early 1980s, it was the appearance of home video. Something had to change, studios believed, or people would just sit at home for their entertainment.

The current 3-D surge is no different. This time around, the threat is high-definition television, combined with Blu-Ray and other home-theater technology. As home viewing becomes more and more like the theatrical experience — only without the incessant talking and text-messaging — 3-D seems like a reasonable go-to source for getting people out to the theater.

Here’s the key difference between 2009 and 1953 or 1983: You’re starting to get that 3-D experience available for home viewing as well. In previous years, 3-D theatrical releases were not released on VHS or DVD in a format that permitted home 3-D viewing. That’s not true in 2009, as recent 3-D releases including the Hannah Montana concert film Best of Both Worlds and Journey to the Center of the Earth made their DVD debut including 3-D versions and glasses. Yes, they were the old-school red-and-blue glasses — home viewing can’t yet duplicate the refracting method of digital projection — but it was still a 3-D version.

And that’s why Super Bowl Sunday was a glimpse of the future of 3-D: The studio made it as easy as possible for the theatrical 3-D experience to be duplicated on your TV screen. The numbers for theatrical 3-D only work if potential audience members perceive a unique experience for the $1.50 they are routinely up-charged for 3-D theatrical showings. (A spokesperson for Real D 3-D Systems told the Los Angeles Times last summer that shooting for 3-D release added $10-$15 million to the average production budget.) And with Sony, Samsung and Panasonic all showing prototypes for 3-D home theater at the 2009 Home Electronics Expo in Las Vegas, the theater’s monopoly seems soon to end.

There will certainly be an ongoing market for 3-D when it comes to the documentary films popular on IMAX and other large-format screens, but your neighborhood multiplex won’t duplicate that experience. Enjoy those glasses in your theater seat while you can. The next time you wear them you might be on your couch.