April 29, 2010

With the simple replacement of polarised lenses for the old coloured lenses combined with modern CGI effects, 3-D films have finally left behind 1950s basement nostalgia and embraced modern blockbuster productions. DreamWorks Animation has already announced that all its future films will be released in 3-D.

It is only a matter of time before most other production studios follow DreamWorks' lead. Cinemas have always been the points of first release for films upon which the DVD tail absolutely depends. Sales of tickets for conventional 2-D films have been falling for years. In contrast, sales of tickets for 3-D films are rising: and will continue to rise until the economy improves and the cost of large-screen 3-D television becomes more affordable to the average technophile. (Small screen televisions won't be adequate even to approximate the cinema big-screen experience.) For the short-term foreseeable future, 3-D is where the money is.

Not that most 3-D productions are likely to make all that much money. The budget for Avatar was $237 million, the largest in history. To date, it has grossed $2.7 billion worldwide: a 1100% return on investment. Its exceptional marketing campaign enabled Avatar to make back 10% of its budget on its opening day, a tenth of that at midnight screenings alone.

Then again, the first film to successfully harness the latest gimmick has always had the profits edge. (Lasting substance is an entirely separate -- and probably profit-inverted -- question.) And let's not forget the surcharge effect, which indirectly accounted for as much as half of Avatar's earnings:
In my review of Clash of the Titans, I added a footnote: "Explain to your kids that the movie was not filmed in 3-D and is only being shown in 3-D in order to charge you an extra $5 a ticket. I saw it in 2-D, and let me tell you, it looked terrific."
- Roger Ebert
For now, the profits chase has turned 3-D into the next big technological wave: but we have seen so many other technological waves crest and collapse. Many have not even survived long enough to be surpassed by true destructive technology. (Who still remembers the LaserDisc?) The real test of net profits will come over the next decade.

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