Heading into this weekend, Hollywood’s once-hot-and-heavy love affair with 3-D was clearly on the rocks. Of this summer’s four major 3-D releases — Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, Green Lantern, and Cars 2 — not a single one managed to earn more than half of its opening-weekend grosses from 3-D. Compare that with the whopping 85 percent of Avatar’s box-office total hauled in by 3-D and you can see why enthusiasm for the format, once heralded as cinema’s biggest revolution since the advent of talkies, has been cooling over the last several months from Wall Street to the executive suites of Hollywood. (Not to mention among my own kids, who flatly refused to see Kung Fu Panda 2 any way other than, well, flatly.) Amid all the hand-wringing about the bursting of the 3-D bubble, the opening of Transformers: Dark of the Moon — which was given a major 3-D push by Paramount and director Michael Bay — was widely seen as a referendum on the state of the format, if not 3-D’s last stand.
Hollywood’s remaining 3-D proponents are breathing a little bit easier today. In the end, 60 percent of Transformers 3‘s domestic opening-weekend grosses came from 3-D, while overseas the figure was 70 percent. That certainly is a step in the right direction. It indicates that, while audiences are no doubt being pickier about when they choose to spring for those premium ticket prices, there is still a healthy demand out there for 3-D movies — at least when they involve giant robots. If nothing else, the added 3-D booty helped give Transformers 3 bragging rights as the biggest Fourth of July opening ever, despite the fact that the previous record-holder, Spider-Man 2, actually sold more tickets.
But will Transformers 3’s relatively strong performance in 3-D be enough to turn around perceptions and reignite enthusiasm for the format? Or will it be seen as just a brief and illusory uptick in a generally downward trend? With the first 3-D movie in the Harry Potter series due July 15 — and 3-D offerings from heavy-hitters like Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin, Dec. 23), Martin Scorsese (Hugo, Nov. 23), Peter Jackson (The Hobbit, Dec. 14, 2012), and James Cameron (the Avatar sequels and a 3-D Titanic) at various stages in the pipeline — Hollywood still has a major investment in the format. But do moviegoers have a long-term emotional investment in 3-D? That’s the real question, and the giant robots haven’t answered it. They just kicked the can down the road.