Has 3-D technology made a difference to moviegoers? The picture is still blurry

08/01/2014 7:00 AM

08/02/2014 9:28 PM

It wasn’t the Oscar-winning films “Avatar” or “Gravity” that convinced Angela Fisher of the power of 3-D filmmaking.

It was “Final Destination 4.”

“I remember being blown away when cars started flying toward me,” says the director of film logistics and film finance at Overland Park-based Dickinson Theatres.

It has been five years since James Cameron’s “Avatar” overhauled the nation’s — and the world’s — attitude about 3-D.

What quickly evaporated as a novelty fad in previous attempts finally has been embraced by moviegoers.

“Avatar” showed that 3-D could still bring patrons to theaters and perhaps stall the drift toward watching movies on television via DVDs and On Demand. Or worse, streaming downloads (possibly illegally) on home computers.

Now that around 35 percent of the nation’s screens are 3-D capable, the question remains whether the impact has been as significant for the customer as for the theaters that spent millions upgrading to this format.

“When we first got 3-D in 2008, we were excited about the additional revenue it would create,” Fisher says.

“But to be honest, 3-D has not performed as well as we thought it would. Sometimes we find a movie — like ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ — that was great in 3-D. Most of the time we’re finding the customers are not wanting to pay that extra fee. We do way better in the non-3-D, which is why we always give the customer that option.”

In fact, for the July 18 opening of the family adventure “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” Dickinson decided against offering it in 3-D.

Nearby competitor AMC Theatres has also sunk enormous resources into the cutting-edge technology.

“3-D is a very important part of our business,” says Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of corporate communications. “About one in every 10 guests choose a 3-D movie.”

Headquartered in Leawood, AMC is the second-largest theater chain. In 2006, AMC partnered with RealD, the company that develops the most widely used technology for 3-D theatrical viewing. Since then, it has converted 2,226 of its screens, which is a little less than half of its total screen count. (AMC is also the largest IMAX partner, with 146 screens worldwide.)

“There are some movies that don’t perform as well,” he says. “But generally, there are still people who really like the 3-D experience and go out of their way to see it. Overall box office in the second quarter declined about 6 percent. RealD only declined by 4.9 percent.”

Noonan’s first day on the job actually included being taken to a 3-D screening of “Avatar” at AMC Studio 30 in Olathe. (“It was incredible,” he says.)

“The biggest priority we have is delivering the best possible moviegoing experience. From a sight and sound perspective, 3-D plays into that. It’s improved the sight part of that significantly,” Noonan says.

Yet sight often depends on viewpoint. Some theaters bemoan diving in all the way when “Avatar” triggered 3-D mania. (The film reportedly earned an astonishing 80 percent of its domestic gross from 3-D ticket sales.)

“At first it really boosted grosses,” says Brock Bagby, director of programming and business development at B&B Theatres. “But one of the bad things was when 3-D first became popular again, it was good, but a lot of movies weren’t great. It wasn’t converted right. The brightness wasn’t there.

“These days it’s really improved, but now you’ve got to convince people to come back.”

B&B is based in Liberty and runs 35 locations in five states (including five in the KC area). It first added 3-D to its Hannibal, Mo., theater in 2009. Since then, it has converted 239 screens at a cost of $1,500 per screen.

“We originally converted about half the screens to 3-D, which is actually a lot more than most companies are doing,” Bagby says. “Recently, we’ve scaled that back with new builds to four or five screens (out of 12).”

Bagby has noticed the interest in 3-D is directly tied to how quickly audiences flock to see a picture.

“These movies are pretty frontloaded — 50 percent or more of the gross happens opening weekend,” he says. “We’re also noticing the 3-D people come out on opening weekend. But by the third or fourth week, they’re ready to go to 2-D. As the movie plays out, we don’t really need the 3-D.”

Bagby says event movies that really stress their 3-D superiority — such as “Gravity” or even “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” — can post terrific numbers. “Gravity” boasted a 70 percent 3-D, 30 percent 2-D haul for B&B. However, the recent “How to Train Your Dragon 2” proved quite the opposite: 20 percent 3-D, 80 percent 2-D.

He thinks the waning interest may be related to the price.

“Especially in a smaller market like ours, a family can’t afford to pay the upcharge,” he says. “Our core is smaller-to-midsize towns. We’re not in New York City. We’re not in Overland Park. So the disposable income isn’t there to support the $3 upcharge.”

Eyes on the future

Three years ago, filmmaker Bruce Branit attended a meeting in Los Angeles where major effects companies such as Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues gathered for the sole purpose of discussing 3-D.

“It was interesting hearing the really big people in the field argue about it,” he says. “The argument was it doesn’t enhance the story. Narratively, when you go see a 3-D movie, by the time you’re 10 minutes in, your eyes adjust and you’re not aware of it anyway.”

Branit owns the KC-based Branit FX, among the region’s premier visual effects houses for TV, films and commercials. He has earned four Emmy Award nominations, most recently for his effects work on “Breaking Bad.”

While most of his film credits (“King Kong,” “Serenity”) came prior to the 3-D revival, he has created commercials that use the process.

“I enjoy 3-D. But there is one inherent issue: It will always cause eyestrain with the current methodology,” he says. “Your eyes focus two ways. One way is like a camera, where you can zoom your focal length forward and backward. When you’re watching a movie, your eyes focus on the screen in the theater. The other thing your eyes do is they focus using stereoscopic convergence, which is triangulating in on a spot — this is how 3-D works.”

He says that in everyday life, when you look at something far away, your eyes are almost parallel and your focus is almost infinite. Then when you look at something close up, your eyes converge and your focal length comes in. When sitting in a theater and the image onscreen is shifted to something up close, your eyes converge but your focal length still has to stay on a screen 50 feet away. This is why some people are averse to 3-D, saying it causes headaches.

“Honestly, it’s lasting a little longer than I had anticipated,” he says. “It’s a bit of a novelty. But it’s probably going to hang around until they figure out a new system that solves some of the technical problems. … To me it doesn’t add much unless it’s something like ‘Gravity’ or ‘Avatar.’ I don’t mind it, but if I have a choice, I’ll usually see a movie in 2-D.”

The downside of glasses

The 3-D boom isn’t just a concern for the bigger theatrical chains. It also affects the approach taken by smaller, independently owned theaters, many of which adopted the capability when upgrading to digital conversion.

“We have found 3-D to be a rare necessity,” Screenland owner Butch Rigby says. “We sell far more 2-D tickets than 3-D for most shows. This is likely a cost factor, as 3-D costs more, but I truly feel the average film patron prefers the 2-D experience.”

Since founding the Screenland Crossroads theater in 2004, Rigby has added Screenland venues at Crown Center and Armour in North Kansas City. He is opening a new Screenland Crossroads location in October (the original closed in 2013). But his new venture at 1701 McGee St. will not include 3-D.

“We did not see an audience for 3-D, as Crossroads will, for the most part, continue with alternative and repertory content,” he says. “We will, of course, have digital projection, but we don’t see the need to install based upon our programming.”

Rigby admits he’s always interested in new technology as a way to make going to the theater more enticing. He is not sure, however, that 3-D is necessarily the means to this end.

“I envision a time when many, many movies will have a different clarity. That day will occur when glasses are not necessary,” he says. “There will always be cinematographers with different looks and visions for how the movie is captured. ‘The Hobbit’ was filmed at a high frame rate, which gave it a completely different look, yet many did not care for it. Unlike (when sound was first introduced), 3-D is not revolutionary. Younger people like it, but even they are buying a lot more of the 2-D tickets.”

One local theater is approaching three dimensions quite literally.

The Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet is 3-D-capable on two-thirds of its screens, although the Texas-based company doesn’t necessarily consider the process a priority.

“It depends on the film,” says Ryan Davis, Alamo’s creative manager, also citing “Gravity” as an example of a filmmaker truly using 3-D technology to “enhance the moviegoing experience.”

But Alamo takes the concept one step further during “The ‘Twister’ Experience,” for instance.

“While the film isn’t in 3-D, we add elements that bring the film into the theater space,” Davis says. “We have inflatable cows that people throw around, fog machines that create cloud cover, strobe lights for lightning, live in-theater pyrotechnics during every explosion and small foam balls that fall on you when it’s hailing.”

While the benefits and detriments are debatable, none of these theater professionals predicts 2-D will be phased out any time soon.

“I don’t see everything going to 3-D,” Dickinson’s Fisher says. “It’s a lot more expensive for the studios to make that option, especially since the return hasn’t been what they were looking for.”

“Then there’s our cost. We charge more for 3-D, but most of that is the cost of the glasses. We have to pay RealD, the company that makes the 3-D, a fee per person. It seems minimal until you start adding that up per person, every single screening.”

She also thinks the glasses themselves can be limiting.

“One of the reasons the 3-D children’s films don’t do so well is that child-size glasses are not always available, and the big glasses are too obnoxious for the kids. Also, kids want to play with the glasses instead of watch the movie,” she says.

“I know they are working toward 3-D without needing glasses — it will be like a hologram — but they just haven’t gotten there yet,” B&B’s Bagby adds.

Who knows if that will change in December 2016. That’s when James Cameron plans to release “Avatar 2,” promising an even more immersive event than the 2009 Oscar winner that launched the 3-D revolution and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time.

Until that point, audiences will have to remain comfortable with the chunky plastic glasses and all the issues that accompany them.

More films on the way in 3-D

This year, 28 films will be released in 3-D, which is down from 34 in 2013 and the 2011 peak of 39. Here are the 3-D films still to come in 2014:

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Aug. 8

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D, Aug. 8

“Step Up: All In,” Aug. 8

“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” Aug. 22

“The Boxtrolls,” Sept. 26

“The Book of Life,” Oct. 17

“Big Hero 6,” Nov. 7

“The Penguins of Madagascar,” Nov. 26

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” Dec. 17

Sources: BoxOffice.com; Deadline.com

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