The last two weeks will not go down as 3-D’s greatest moment. First there was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which earned just 46 percent of its $90.2 million opening from 3-D showings. That was the second-worst 3-D debut — on a percentage-of-gross basis — since November 2008. And then over Memorial Day weekend, Kung Fu Panda 2‘s three-dimensional screenings could muster only 45 percent of its $60.9 million opening. For both films, nearly two-thirds of moviegoers opted for the 2-D version. Depending on who you ask, that’s either an indication that audiences are starting to reject 3-D cinema, or simply a blip in 3-D’s otherwise promising future. But Wall Street investors aren’t liking what they’re seeing, causing shares of the leading 3-D technology company RealD to tumble 26 percent the last two weeks.
Stock analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research is one of Wall Street’s most vocal opponents of 3-D. “I think people are tired of showing up and having to wear glasses — at high prices — every single week,” says Greenfield, who happened to mention the three most frequent complaints launched against 3-D: uncomfortable glasses, expensive surcharges, and an oversaturated market. In regard to the glasses, some segments of the audience have trouble with them, namely small children and individuals who already wear glasses, while others (particularly Roger Ebert) don’t appreciate their dimming effect. But most moviegoers seem okay with wearing the dorky frames.
Pricey surcharges and a glut of 3-D movies are another matter, though. At Los Angeles’ AMC Century City theater, a family of four must shell out $64 to catch a 3-D flick — $17.50 for adults and $14.50 for kids. “[The prices] are insulting to the consumer,” says Greenfield. “They’re hurting the price-value relationship of going out to the movies, especially when you see Netflix at $7.99 or Redbox at a dollar a day.” The sheer amount of 3-D movies being released has also drawn criticism. In 2009, Hollywood put out an average of one 3-D picture per month. Last month, however, saw the release of four 3-D films — one every weekend. “There’s just too much 3-D,” says one prominent industry executive. “It’s too much of a good thing. I like steak, but I don’t want to eat it every night.”
But does Hollywood have any plans for curtailing its surplus of 3-D movies? Or, more importantly, does Hollywood even think 3-D needs fixing at the moment? One comment I frequently heard from various insiders was this: Wait a little longer. “You have to make decisions based on a full-year cycle, not a finite period of time,” says Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment. That sentiment was echoed by Dan Fellman, the president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “I think it’s a bit of a glitch we’re going through at the moment,” says Fellman. “By the middle of August, I think we can really determine what the pattern is and if we need to make some adjustments.”
By mid-August, we’ll have seen (and, in some cases, endured) the 3-D releases of Green Lantern, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Smurfs, Final Destination 5, Glee Live 3D, Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, and Spy Kids 4. And while Wall Street investors and box-office analysts will be looking closely at how these movies performed in 3-D, the studios may be focused on something else: the foreign market.
Any 3-D fatigue that’s being felt domestically has yet to spread overseas. Disney’s Pirates posted the largest foreign debut ever, with 66 percent of its tally coming from 3-D screenings, while Kung Fu Panda 2 grossed $55.5 million from only 11 markets — including China, where it registered the biggest opening ever for a non-Chinese production. “Our shareholders expect us to think about the world as the world, not domestic versus international,” says Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution, “and [with Pirates] we did 61 percent of our global business in 3-D.” Adds Fellman: “If the international market continues to rally and the domestic drops a little, the overall picture is still in the plus column and there will be no change [in Hollywood's approach to 3-D].”
So are 3-D movies dying? Not according to Hollywood, at least when studios examine the issue from a global viewpoint. The big question is whether 3-D’s novelty will eventually wear off in such emerging markets as China and Russia. “I can’t imagine consumers all across the globe are that much different from Americans when it comes to seeing movies,” says Greenfield. Of course, if the world’s moviegoers do tire of 3-D in the next year or two, there’s a little film at the end of 2014 just waiting to get us hooked all over again. It’s called Avatar 2.