Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - 3-D is the New Sound
by Christopher Campbell
October 20, 2008
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?
Well, 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.
I 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.