Is 3D Film Worth Bothering With?

A guest contribution from the New York Film Academy.

We’re currently at the height – and arguably, the irreversible decline – of the fifth era of 3D filmmaking. As such, this post-Avatar craze is nothing new, but it could well be the first serious chance 3D film has had to remain a permanent fixture in our theaters, and perhaps even our homes.

If your home/family does not look like this, you’re doing it all wrong!
If your home/family does not look like this, you’re doing it all wrong!

While there are scores of people who deride the trend as a flash in the pan (or, to the extreme, some kind of defilement of the art form), I’ve personally had a good number of positive 3D experiences, at least when the film hasn’t been converted from 2D in a way which gives me a optical migraine.

That said, the majority of my film-going friends – both cinephiles and casual viewers alike – are generally dispassionate either way about 3D. With an attitude that can best be summed up as ‘meh’, most folk I know don’t lose any sleep over opting for a cheaper 2D theater ticket and I’m yet to meet anyone with a 3D-ready television in their homes.

But that’s not exactly an empirical study into the matter. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the hard figures in order to get a handle on whether 3D is worth bothering with, from the two distinct groups that should care most: those making film, and those watching them.

Standing on the Other Side of the Camera

As dictated by Moore’s law, technology is progressively getting more advanced and less costly; this is no less true of 3D cameras. At the top end, IMAX 3D is being offered to select filmmakers – Michael Bay will be an early adopter with Transformers 4, and it outputs so much data that he predicts an entire studio won’t have enough computing power to deal with more than just a few select scenes.

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On the other end of the scale, 3D camera rigs have taken a step into the outskirts of the realms of affordability. A semi-decent, budget rig can now be bought for around $6,000 if the filmmaker is savvy enough, which is comparable to a lot of traditional rigs. So why aren’t more indie filmmakers jumping on board? How come even industry stalwarts (and those with huge budgets) like Ang Lee have decried the cost of shooting in 3D?

Well, if you’re a film school student compiling a master project for a New York Film Academy program, even the most entry-level rigs (which produce less than optimal results) will dwarf most budgets. Secondly, it’s not just a rig you need – you probably need a couple, plus specific monitors and a whole suite of software. Don’t forget that you’ll also need crew with specific film experience, otherwise your final cut is going to look like a dog’s dinner. It might anyway, unless you’re willing to spend some serious capital on getting industry-standard equipment rather than doing it on the cheap.

It’s not just about getting a 3D camera on your tripod. Often, the post-production costs make the pre-production expenses look like a petty purchase.

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But what of those with a higher budget? Putting anecdotal reports to one side, one of the most comprehensive research papers published on the topic has shown that a high-budget indie or polished union production can expect a 19% average increase on costs when working in 3D.

Granted, that study is a couple of years old, but it’s fair to say that 3D production is still reserved solely for those with a decent budget. And while we can assume that production costs have dropped since the report was published, the big studios rarely buy anything but the most cutting-edge tech rather than buying mid-range equipment.

So, is the cost justified by box office takings?

It’s touch and go. In the west, 3D film has seen a troubling decline over the last couple of years. In the US it has hit a record sore point, with The Wolverine setting the new lowest water level with only 25% of its box office takings accounted for by 3D. In the UK, things are even worse; 18% of box office revenue was taken by 3D tickets, down from 20% the year before and 24% the year before that.

Alas, when expressed as a ratio of cost increase : revenue boost, the situation is precarious indeed; if the decline in ticket revenue continues, it may reach a critical mass situation where studios may not be able to justify the 3D budget they shoot for in their business plans…

… except, perhaps, in certain parts of the world.

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In Russia and China, the number of 3D tickets sold is astronomical – in fact, only between 10 and 20 per cent of people choose to forego the glasses when given the option.

The Bottom Line from The Viewer’s Perspective

The downward slide in revenue takings has coincided very evenly with the largely negative outpouring from professional critics and even film directors. For every James Cameron declaring that all entertainment will inevitably be 3D in the future (yes, he said that) there will be a score of others yelling the opposite, such as Christopher Nolan and the late Roger Ebert.

Even if a film fan is 50/50 on the issue, a general feeling of ‘this is a flash in the pan’ put out by film sites is enough to make them question spending an extra $4 dollar increase on an already expensive ticket.

Personally, I watch a lot of movies – I kinda have to – and if I’m spending an additional $4 or $8 a week, that’s not leaving me with much to spend on overpriced popcorn. That said, I do choose to see certain films in 3D when I think it will make for a more immersive experience. I get the impression that it’s the same for a lot of people, and the industry doesn’t fully understand this; the Life of Pi experience was enhanced by its 3D production not because Ang Lee decided it would be the best medium for scaring the audience with a tiger leaping from beneath a boat’s canvas – that was an ancillary benefit.

By the same token, I don’t want to see a movie in which the horse was put before the cart right from the production boardroom: “You know what will be awesome in 3D? Giant robots punching each other! Get me Del Torro on the phone!”

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I think we’ll continue to judge 3D movies on their own individual merits, regardless of how they are presented and certainly despite the industry’s continued underestimation of their audience’s intelligence.

Perhaps lowering production costs will improve the prognosis of 3D film. Perhaps sales in the East will continue to prop up the industry. Or maybe a big revision in ticket pricing will save the day. Either way, history has proven – time and time again – that some of us will continue to watch 3D as long as people are making it.

The ultimate question is, for how long it will be profitable to do so?

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