Thursday, August 18, 2011


It should be. I think the technique is already a goner. Move over Smell-O-Vision and Sensurround! Make room for one more burial plot in Hollywood’s gimmick graveyard.

This year the average movie released in both 3-D and 2-D is only earning about 40% of its revenue from the 3-D format. 2-D is prevailing throughout the country. Why? What happened? Why has the promise of 3-D become so ho-hum? Why has the format that James Cameron said was the future of film become an also- ran? Simple. It ain’t worth it.
A wonderful example of 3-D depth was showcased in CORALINE (2009)

It started promisingly with the likes of the animated CORALINE (2009). The brilliant stop-motion animator Henry Selick used the 3-D format as beautifully as its ever been employed to add deep focus to his luscious settings for his story of a young girl’s romp through a fantasy world. 
The world of Pandora is brought to life vividly by 3-D in AVATAR (2009)

That same year AVATAR broke all kinds of box office records by rendering its world of Pandora with perhaps the greatest amount of fantastical detail ever created for a film. And the depth and vividness of 3-D made that computer-generated world seem incredibly real. AVATAR also went on to make more money than any film in the history of the movies so studio executives got greedy. Suddenly they were greenlighting 3-D movies left and right. And if they weren't creating them they were converting regular 2-D movies to the expanded format to capitalize on the craze. (And a craze that charged at least 5 bucks more per ticket.) The problem with that, other than utter greed, is that so many films were not special enough for 3-D or had visual landscapes that needed to be seen in 3-D to be fully appreciated. The Selicks and Camerons were few and far between. 
Unfortunately THE GREEN HORNET (2011) was shot in 2-D and converted to 3-D afterwards.

One needs only look at this year's ho-hum 3-D releases to realize that the technique has become nothing more than a moneymaking gimmick. There was no good reason that 2-D films like THE GREEN HORNET or Justin Bieber’s concert movie or DRIVE ANGRY were converted and then shown in theaters in the 3-D format. And more often than not it's schlocky horror movies that seem to be getting the lion's share of 3-D releases.  Perhaps some find it charming seeing eyeballs pop out of a head and travel into the audience but I don’t think that justifies the technique.

In addition to the justification issue, there are downsides to the 3-D format that are infuriating more and more audiences as well. Most films lose a level of brightness due to the 3-D effects. And another level of it is lost due to the cumbersome dark 3-D glasses. See for yourself next time you shell out your hard-earned dough. As the 3-D movie starts, take off the glasses and look at the screen. Sure it will be blurry but it will also appear a helluva lot brighter. Then when you put your 3-D glasses back on it will be akin to wearing sunglasses in a darkened theater. That may work for Jack Nicholson but few else. 
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) is being released in 2-D and 3-D
Unfortunately all of this has rendered 3-D either boring, inappropriate or worst of all, ordinary. Yet despite all these problems, Hollywood has already made dozens and dozens of 3-D pictures just waiting to be released. (One of them, FRIGHT NIGHT opens this weekend. And was it necessary to make this in 3-D? I'll bet not.)  And most of the films will not be worthy of the technique or warrant the inflated ticket price. But Hollywood always tries to do more with less. In the 1950’s the small screen (TV) became a huge competitor to the big screen, so Hollywood super-sized its cinema screens and gave them ridiculous, over-the-top names like “CinemaScope” and “Cinerama” and “VistaVision.” But audiences quickly caught on and realized that no matter how wide you made the screen, a bad movie is still a bad movie, not an event. Thus, those ginormous screens were done away with. 
William Castle knew a good gimmick when he created one like "Percepto" for his horror movie THE TINGLER (1959)
There have been other attempts at schlocky gimmicks throughout the years to enhance the movie-going experience. Producer William Castle practically made it into a cottage industry in the 50’s and 60’s with the advent of silly gizmos like “Percepto." They were little vibrators attached to movie theater seats to give audiences little shocks during certain key scares in his horror film THE TINGLER.
Divine is about to taste something the audience was lucky to only smell in PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
Then there was the infamous ‘Smell-O-Vision’ idea where certain smells were released during screenings to correspond with onscreen locations. Then “Odorama” cards hit theaters. They were ‘scratch & sniff’ cards you’d scuff during key moments to release the appropriate fragrance. This gimmick reached its nadir when John Waters created his over-the-top cards for the release of his cult classic PINK FLAMINGOS in 1972. In that flick, Divine followed around a dog until it pooped and then she sampled his fresh, steaming creation. Waters had fun by matching one of his card's squares with that scene so everyone in the audience could experience Divine's fecal morsel.  Mmm, pass the popcorn.

Then in the early 70’s, to exploit the disaster movie craze, a new sound system was put into select theaters designed to enhance the cinematic experience via stereophonic sound. Sensurround was paired with films like EARTHQUAKE (1974) to make you feel like you were in the actual earthquake yourself. What the deafening technique really achieved was making hundreds of people feel like they were in a really crummy movie with speaker-popping, eardrum-splitting noise.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010) brilliantly utilized the 3-D technique. Most 3-D movies do not.

3-D isn’t as bad as that, but in this economy I’m not sure audiences need any more reason to shun the ploy other than it's just not worth it. If they made more movies like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON that brilliantly exploited the 3-D technique to give audience members a genuine feeling of dragon flight, well, that would be one thing. But too often it’s merely used for trifles like another sequel to SAW. Do we really need to see bowels and intestines burst out of the screen? Is that a good use of 3-D technology?

But you can’t keep a good gimmick down in Hollywood. This weekend SPY KIDS 4 opens. Not only is it in 3-D, it’s also in 4-D, a technique they're calling “Aroma-Scope.” It's a riff on John Waters' scratch & sniff cards. Let’s just hope there are no wayward pooches in the movie.


  1. Then there's the 3D soft core porn film THE STEWARDESSES released in 1969. According to the site

    "The Stewardesses is the most profitable 3-D film in history. In today's dollars, it grossed over $100,000,000.00 (no, that's not a typo). The film played for over 2 years in some theatres, and out-grossed mainstream fare like Love Story."

  2. What I am so over as well are those ridiculous glasses that still must be worn to watch a 3-D movie. I feel like I’m living in the 50’s having to do that today. With all the billions being poured into special effects, why can’t Hollywood develop a way to chuck the extraneous hardware stuck to my face, and then I’ll gladly pay a premium for 3-D.

    If and when, that is, the film warrants it. I saw CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER recently in 3-D and the effects in this live-action film were largely wasted. After awhile I even forgot it was 3-D.

    I have not seen many 3-D films, so I am no expert on this topic. But I get the impression it often works better in animated film, such as in AVATAR (which I still have yet to Netflix). If so, and if there was a way to get 3-D easily right in my living room, well, I might make an exception and reconcile with the dreaded spectacles.

  3. Michael, that porn flick sounds hilarious! I had never heard of it, let alone realized how profitable it was. Wow!

  4. Fan With No Name, I agree wholeheartedly. The problem with most 3-D movies is that they really don't justify the use of the technology. And you're right about those darn glasses. It's especially cumbersome for those of us who already wear glasses! Supposedly certain new smart phones have technology that enable 3-D viewing on your cell without the need for glasses. Perhaps the big screen will soon follow suit.