The pairing of an exclusive theatrical trailer for james cameronis long overdue Avatar continued with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness proved a momentous moment beyond the Marvel movie’s heroic $449 million worldwide opening (including $187 million domestically) over the weekend of May 6-8. Nearly 10% of moviegoers in North America opted to pay 20% to 30% more for a 3D ticket, an incredible leap for a format that many had abandoned even before the COVID-19 crisis.
No film better illustrated the promise of 3D than 2009’s Avatar, which, with $8.45 billion in worldwide ticket sales, remains the highest-grossing film of all time. But in the years that followed, the lure of higher box office returns derailed the 3D train just as it left the station. Now Disney and 20th Century (and their rivals) are hoping Avatar: The Way of the Water revives the format as a key differentiator. “At a time when people are used to being at home watching content, anything that encourages them to go to the movies has to be positive for us and for the industry in general,” says the chief executive. worldwide distribution of Disney films. Tony Chambers. “It’s all about the experience. If done right, people will come out again and again. Mail will not be seen Avatar 2 in 3D but to see for the experience.
But moviegoers will have to be re-educated. “We believe 3D creates a more immersive experience in our narrative storytelling. We don’t play 3D as a world coming out of a window. We play it as a window into the world,” Jon LandauCameron’s producing partner at Lightstorm Entertainment, says from New Zealand, where Avatar 2 is in office. “We give people something they can’t get anywhere else. We need the exhibitor community to support this and understand that we are competing with different technologies than those found in people’s homes.
The latest wave of 3D has been made possible by the transition from film to digital projection systems. There were a few early digital 3D releases for the limited number of supported auditoriums, starting with Disney’s Clittle chicken in 2005. And led by format champion Jeffrey Katzenbergthe DreamWorks Animation slate received the 3D treatment starting with Monsters vs Aliens in 2009.
For many moviegoers, the first time they put on 3D glasses was to see Avatar. The 3D film’s market share at the box office was over 70%, driving 3D revenues to a record $1.85 billion in 2010. But then there was a series of releases like those of 2010. Clash of the Titans, which received a rushed 3D conversion to jump on the bandwagon and was widely seen as a bad experience, sours moviegoers on the format.
“I think what happened was that some people got lost, and there was a period where people felt that converting something to 3D made it a better movie. 3D doesn’t change the movie. 3D exacerbates whatever the movie is,” Landau says. “I think people were doing it as an afterthought, as opposed to 3D as a creative element, not unlike lighting, not unlike focus, no different from camera movement, which a filmmaker needs to bring sensitivity to how to use that to enhance narrative storytelling.
Adds a senior studio executive, “Hollywood got greedy like they always do.”
In 2017, domestic 3D receipts fell by 55% compared to 2010, with many films only earning 17% of their revenue from 3D tickets. The slowdown prompted Imax – a longtime proponent of the format – to announce it was moving away from so many 3D releases. The company was wise. By 2019, 3D revenues were down more than 70% from 2010 levels.
“3D warm-up should be done thoughtfully and carefully,” says Imax Entertainment president Megan Colligan. “There were a lot of lessons learned. You will not see all converted movies. We’re really working with studios and exhibitors to figure out how to get people used to it. James Cameron understands the medium. 3D creates a richer and deeper experience when it serves the story. Intent is everything.
It also helps consumers pay a significant premium for premium 2D formats, such as Imax. Appetite for these formats has increased throughout the pandemic, including 36% of the opening weekend of Doctor Strange 2.
For its part, Disney offers 3D versions of its event films leading to Avatar 2including Pixar Light year this summer. And Universal’s July tent pole Jurassic World: Dominion will get a major 3D push.
The format is still incredibly popular in some parts of the world; 45% of Brazil’s opening weekend revenue for Doctor Strange 2 comes from 3D. In Germany it was 50%.
A source says every Hollywood studio needs to do its part to make the 3D revival work. When the original Avatar came out, the version rewrote the book on presentation quality by creating different versions of the film (including versions at different lighting levels, aspect ratios and intended for different 3D systems) with the aim of ensuring that each cinema can show the film in the best possible way. For Avatar 2the team is at work again with very ambitious plans to make many versions for the various theatrical systems.
“We have already started the research,” says Landau. “Geoff Burdick (Senior Vice President of Production Services and Technology for Lightstorm) and our team at Lightstorm have been very engaged directly with Disney and the exhibit community.”
They have also worked with film technology developers.
“Even before the new Avatar the trailer premiered at CinemaCon [the theater owners conference held in April]we have indeed seen a great deal of interest from exhibits in new products that exist that can enhance the cinematic experience,” says Brian Claypool, executive vice president of cinema at projector manufacturer Christie. “Higher 3D brightness and the ability to support higher frame rates in 4K has certainly seen an increase in recent customer conversations.”
Cinema technology has come a long way over the past decade, which will also help elevate every 3D presentation. For example, 3D glasses can reduce visible light, making the image darker, but brighter laser projectors can help solve this problem. Cameron also incorporates a high frame rate of 48 frames per second.
Cinema owners are certainly not opposed to a 3D revival, as it also increases their revenues. “3D is a viable option when done right, but it needs to be an integral part of the storytelling,” says the National Association of Theater Owners‘ vice president and director of communications. Patrick Corcoran. “It’s not the answer to everything but cannot be treated as an afterthought.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.