Is 3D On Its Last Legs?

In 2008, I attended the first 3D Entertainment Summit. Delivering the keynote was DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who proclaimed that in film’s 100-plus-year history, there have been three major milestones that have advanced the art of filmmaking: sound, color and, now, 3D (obvious hyperbole to promote upcoming DreamWorks Animation 3D releases).

First off, I’m not a big fan of 3D, and like a growing number of moviegoers, I avoid it at all costs when I go to the theater. As a format, 3D has been around since the dawn of movies, but hit its peak during the ’50s, when the film industry was in a rut. Well, once again, the moviegoing experience needed a jolt—this time being threatened by an onslaught of HDTVs in the home, video games, mobile devices and, most of all, the Internet. Studios and the production industry trotted out 3D to the rescue again (this time digital 3D), and we witnessed a similar 3D explosion at the box office, which was kickstarted in the late ’00s and early ’10s with James Cameron’s 3D epic, Avatar (2009), the highest-grossing film of all time.

Obviously, the studios love 3D since you’re able to add roughly 30% to the price of each ticket. After these profits are factored in, the cost of doing a 3D conversion is mere peanuts for the studios, especially if the film is a hit. Although directors like Peter Jackson and James Cameron have embraced stereoscopic filmmaking, convincing cinematographers has been difficult from both a technical and an artistic standpoint. The camera rigs are bulky and telephoto lenses are frowned upon, which limit a cinematographer’s ability to tell a story visually.

We’ve been witnessing a backlash against 3D, and some of the biggest hits of the past year (The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Fast & Furious) were 2D releases. The reason is simple: The novelty wore off. If a technology loses its "wow factor" and doesn’t improve the quality of a film, why continue to pay for it? And once kids became ambivalent about seeing movies in 3D, their parents were eager to return to 2D ticket prices. Although 3D has been subsiding in the U.S., 3D ticket sales have been booming in foreign box offices, especially China. Ticket sales for blockbuster films like Iron Man 3,Man of Steel and Pacific Rim are thriving, mainly due to 3D. For this reason, 3D will stick around for the time being.

TV is a completely different story and, ultimately, will slay the 3D format (for now). I’m a firm believer that the dominant format isn’t determined by an Oscar®-winning director or cinematographer, but more on your average Joe sitting in front of his big-screen TV on NFL game day. 3D TV sales have been on life support the past two years because of the lack of 3D content, and with the lack of 3D TVs, why would the studios and cable network channels produce this content? It’s a vicious cycle for a technology that, let’s be honest, was never in high demand for the home. Recently, ESPN announced that they will be discontinuing ESPN 3D at the end of the year. This is pretty much the final nail in 3D TV’s coffin.

At this year’s NAB, I wasn’t surprised to see that 3D camera rigs and 3D-enabled camcorders were missing on the show floor. They were replaced by sexy new 4K cameras and monitors, and most of the discussion focused on 4K workflows. Yes, 4K is still hype, but if I were a betting man, I would be all in on 4K and take my money out of 3D, pronto.

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