EDITORIALS

Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - 3-D is the New Sound

by
October 20, 2008

3-D is the New Sound

One of the big "what if?" questions in film history is whether or not Hollywood could have survived so tremendously during the Great Depression had it not been for the recent development of "talkies" in 1927. Another related and more specific question is, what if the conversion to sound hadn't gone so smoothly or so quickly? It's very interesting to look at how long it's taking the studios and theater owners to adequately switch over to digital projection, and subsequently to 3-D-ready cinemas, compared to the sound changeover of the '20s. Was Hollywood really that much more efficient 80 years ago?

The Jazz SingerWell, considering only about two years passed from the monumental premiere of The Jazz Singer in October 1927, to the time when virtually all American theaters were equipped to handle sound pictures. And considering exactly halfway through that short period the country experienced the big stock market crash that kicked off the Depression, it does seem like things were better managed in the old days. Yet Hollywood's sound conversion was remarkable for any era. At the time, Fortune magazine declared it "beyond comparison the fastest and most amazing revolution in the whole history of industry revolutions."

Some speediness certainly came about because the studios owned almost all of America's cinemas in the '20s and '30s. But the conversion also benefited from the fact that sound films were such a big deal for moviegoers, and therefore they had to be a big deal for Hollywood. Despite the increased success and the increased production of digital 3-D movies, however, the format just hasn't been given the same attention in terms of immediacy and promotion that the innovation of sound received. And while some of the problem has definitely been with the current gap between the film and the exhibition industries, clearly there's also just a general lack of excitement about the 3-D revolution on a whole.

Why this is, I'm not exactly sure. Each movie that has been released with either the option or the exclusivity of being viewed in the digital 3-D format has done really well in terms of per-screen averages. Sure, the overall grosses for some of these titles may not be enormous, but that's mostly due to the lack of a sufficient amount of screens equipped to show digital 3-D. Also, reports of box office figures rarely comment on the greater per-screen success of, say, Journey to the Center of the Earth in its 3-D engagements compared to its 2-D engagements.

Another issue is the lack of enthusiasm from the moviegoers, regardless of whether or not they've seen a digital 3-D movie. First, there's the large percentage of the public who still aren't aware or convinced that digital 3-D is different, let alone better, than the old analog 3-D. Not helping are the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of films like Journey, which are presented in the analog format and come with the old cardboard glasses. Second, there are the surprisingly large amount of people I hear from who have seen a movie in digital 3-D and have not been all that impressed. I'll admit that some of the bigger deal movies have been disappointments (Journey and Beowulf especially), but I still remember how excited and overwhelmed I was after my first experience seeing a digital 3-D movie, and it's hard to believe that others haven't come away with similar feelings about the format.

3-D AudienceI guess for me it helps that my first time watching a digital 3-D feature was with Monster House, a movie released at a time when there were only 215 3-D screens in the country. Obviously that means few other Americans were treated to the same introduction to 3-D that I was. But even if people were underwhelmed by their gateway film, which was likely either the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert film or Journey, both these movies were financially successful enough that Hollywood shouldn't care if moviegoers weren't completely satisfied. The studios' and cinemas' bank accounts were substantially satisfied - and that's all that typically matters in Hollywood. Right?

Still, it's already been almost three years since the major debut of digital 3-D (with Disney's Chicken Little in November of 2005), and so far the rollout of digital projectors, which must be in place before 3-D upgrades can be installed, has been progressing at a snail-like pace compared to the cheetah-like sound conversion. While some of the studios and theater owners have recently agreed on terms for a deal that will quicken an enormous expansion of digital cinemas, there will still be a significant lack of 3-D screens available next year, even though Hollywood will be releasing up to a dozen 3-D formatted titles, new and old (e.g. Pixar's Toy Story will be re-released in 3-D next October).

Of course there are a number of significant differences between the advance of sound and the advance of digital 3-D. On one hand, sound seems more necessary to storytelling, particularly for a form of art and entertainment that is already celebrated for its great representation of reality. On the other hand, 3-D is more of a spectacle. Also, as mentioned before, studios can re-release old films that have been updated to the 3-D format, whereas silent films couldn't so easily be turned into sound films. Despite the differences, though, it should be clearer to both studios and theater owners that just as sound films probably helped Hollywood keep afloat through the Depression, 3-D movies may be the attraction that's needed to keep people going to the movies during our current economic crisis.

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  • DCompose
    People connect more with sound than sight. And nobody worth a damn gives a shit about 3-d.
  • JL
    3D can be fun, but you have to wear those ridiculous glasses, and for people with specs it can be cumbersome. I should know.
  • Josh Rowe
    Watching somebody walk around a normal house on a big HD screen in Journey to the Centre of the Earth was fun but the effect sorta wore off half way through in and I had to re focus my eyes.
  • 3D filmmaking, in it's current incarnation, is a fad (imho). The conversion from silent to sound went as quick as it did because the difference between a silent movie and one with sound is a no-brainer. OF COURSE you're going to want to hear your movies. Duh. 3D is more along the lines of color TV versus black and white. It took much longer to phase out B&W television sets (I still have older relatives that own them) because the choice between that and color TV is one of preference. Sure, color TV is better, but it's not a make-or-break choice. Leading up to today with HD - some people can't live without it (namely me), while the majority of people really see no discernible difference between regular and HD content. That's why it's going to take a long time to completely phase out regular, non-HD TVs. I guess the point I'm making is that seeing a movie in 3D is an optional thing. Sure, some people may like it, but it's not going to redefine cinema for the majority of viewers. Until they make a drastic development in the field (maybe 3D without having to wear those ridiculous one-size-fits-no-one glasses?) it's doomed to be relegated to the "gimmick" department.
  • Josh Rowe
    Also, if anybody didn't know, all future Dreamworks and Disney movies starting with Bolt and Aliens Vs Monsters will be screened in Digital 3D.
  • dd
    So jorney to the center of the earth comes with the old school shitty red and blue glasses?
  • Alfredo
    Yeah, what Peter said. 3-D is not really necessary for the further enjoyment of a movie. Sound definitely is. Besides, I think the fact theaters were owned by studios made a big difference. If the studios spend a lot of money developing sound movies, they're gonna equip all their theaters with sound. Movie theaters today are an intermediary, so they don't care if a studio spent this and that amount of money for a 3-D movie. I have a question, what's the diff between analog and digital 3-D in terms of what it actually looks like?
  • troy
    3-d is fine for amusement parks and what not, but not for 2 hour long movies, its hard on the eyes, and the effect wares off. overall i agree that digital projection is awesome, but switch theaters to it for the quality of the image, not so we can see stupid movies in a pathetic "3rd dimension".
  • I am split on this issue. If you don't support 3D then don't see it. Simple as that, you aren't being forced to go.
  • Kail
    Silent films actually can be converted into "talkies" easier than 2D to 3D films, it's called dubbing, though they probably didn't do it, it could be done, and could be done relatively easier. I'm actually surprised it wasn't done as much as it could've been done considering movies were colorized a lot back in the day and are now being converted to 3D, but I guess the idea of making new movies rather than re-using the same old movies sounded better to them, boy how things have changed.
  • Craig
    I too agree with Peter's statement. Although, I would compare 2-D to 3-D more with the conversion of digital sound. More than just no sound to "talkies." Yeah theaters went to sound but now you have many forms of audio -analog, stereo, Dolby Analog, Dolby Digital, DTS...etc. If you surveyed theater owners probably more than half still don't have the latest format of sound. Plus, most movie goers probably could not tell the difference in sound. Just like most don't care if it's 3-D or digital or 35mm. "Hollywood" will still continue to push 3-D but it's really up to the audiences to make it worth it. Would you pay more for 3-D?
  • Oh, that guy.
    Back in the day there were just single screen theatres with a minimum of two projectors but no more than four in the big houses. To upgrade to sound those 2 projectors each had to be motorized, a soundhead added to each, a single amplifier and a speaker. Probably not too much out-of-pocket expense. Back in the day a projectionist could maintain and repair all the equipment himself. Basically, nearly a century later, those same projectors can show a feature film today. The cost to switch to digital, let alone 3-D is, I think, $90,000 to $150,000 PER SCREEN. If a theatre owner installs a digital 3-D projector now it will likely be outdated in a decade (my opinion). A few years ago a DLP tech was installing a temporary DLP 2K projector in our theatre and he said "4K projectors will never happen". The next month a Sony tech stopped by to check out the theatre in preparation of a test-run of their 4K system. I think digital projection looks great when properly installed and maintained. However, the cost is a joke and 3-D has been an ongoing gimmick for the past 50 years - and will continue to be until Holodecks are invented.
  • avoidz
    Modern 3D movies are still going to be gimmicky, not matter how hard the studios push them as "the next big thing in cinema". For most viewers, it's still that Friday the 13th knife comin' at ya from the screen. James Cameron certainly seems to believe he has something unique and revolutionary. We shall see, Jimbo.
  • Merc
    I completely agree with #8. And @ #10: The way they seem to be going about it now, it seems we WILL sometimes be forced/only be able to watch certain film releases in 3D. I certainly hope not.
  • Nice to see you guys paying some attention to 3D in your posts! @JL - Don't fret too much about the glasses. We all put on sunglasses when we venture outside so don't pretend you can't make the effort lol! Besides, even if you wear prescription glasses, they will be making 3D glasses that also turn into sunglasses AND in prescription formats. Multipurpose! Further, they may not be around for a long time with advances being made all the time - especially in 3D home videos and theater. @avoidz - Some are gimmicky, but most directors "get it" now. Especially the big boys like Cameron, Spielberg, Jackson, Lucas, Burton and so on. @Oh, that guy - The major cost in digital 3D is indeed the digital conversion. The 3D conversion is an add-on, but nearly as much as digital and that includes Real D and their specialized screen. Oh, the total number of 3D movies slated for 2009 is 21 with 16 or 17 likely to get distribution - not 12 - don't know where you are getting those numbers. You can see all of them here: http://marketsaw.blogspot.com/2007/04/list-of-upcoming-3d-movies.html Keep up the great work on 3D FirstShowing! It is the future! :-)
  • Dusty
    #12 'Oh, that guy' hit it right on the head as the reason for the slow deployment. I am Sales Manager for US cinema market for a company that is bastardizing all of your cinema experiences apparently due to high level of excitement for 3D. (Alex knows my excitement) You have to look at the screens of the past in comparison to the rollout of today. 3D is not the issue. 3D Digital Cinema is not possible without the investment in a Digital Cinema system, 3D or only 2D. 'oh, that guy' I am sorry you had someone that was so lost to not know about the Sony unit, the unit is still the red-headed stepchild of the Digital Cinema industry with only Muvico making any large commitment to them. As we see more folks able to afford the Digital Cinema conversion, 3D will gain its foot hold. Like it or not, it is here to stay and with a large percentage of revenue gained on a small percentage of screen, Alex is right, the Studios see the pockets only getting fuller.
  • Dusty
    SIDE NOTE:: Sony is making some good advancements and I have a couple friends on the team there.. I just had to get a jab in there.
  • avoidz
    Still doesn't answer how this is going to work on home video, or the novelty of the effect wearing off after an hour or so. How many people have a "high level of excitement" about 3D movies? Let me guess, the next big thing in cinemas will be the return of "Emergo".

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