January and February may not be looked upon with much fondness for most of us out there. Film fans however, will rejoice at casting aside the Christmas period. The turn of the year signifies the release of that year’s most anticipated titles, all battling it out for accolades during awards season.
Many of us then, will be wandering on down to our local cinemas to catch the best of 2015. One thing you might notice is the distinct lack of 3D offerings at what’s considered to be the height of the year for film-making. The reason? 3D is (not officially but pretty much) dead.
Despite its promotion as the future of cinema roughly around six years ago, 3D films have been around for almost a century. The earliest film both shot and screened in 3D was made back in 1922. The Power of Love premièred in a hotel theatre in LA, and used the familiar dual-strip red and green projection- and indeed, 3D glasses.
One Hundred Years In The Making
Ever since its inception, 3D film has endured an endless cycle of promise and re-emergence, followed by failure. Enjoying a golden era in 1950s, 3D film could never sustain itself long enough to become a mainstay of the cinema experience. Aside from leaving a number of viewers aching from every orifice above the neck, the time, finance and impracticalities required to shoot and show an entire film in 3D hampered attempts to roll it out in cinemas. 3D found a nice little niche for itself, largely confined to shorts, exploitation films and horror flicks.
That was until the turn of the millennium. After wowing school children the country over with their catalogue of novel 3D movies at Bradford’s National Media Museum, IMAX provided the financial muscle to see 3D slowly crawl its way onto feature length titles. All that was required was a champion of the genre, a film both outstanding in its narrative and enhanced by its 3-dimensional qualities. And James Cameron delivered, with Avatar almost certainly taking films least competitive prize of greatest 3D film of all time.
Avatar sent the 3D production of film into overdrive. The industry seized on the success of the blue tree-huggers, with the amount of films available in 3D rising by almost 500% from 2008 to 2011. And some (emphasis placed on some) worked. But for every Avatar and Gravity, there were countless Transformers, Clash of the Titans and Piranha 3DDs.
Enthusiasts will have hoped Avatar could be the defining moment for 3D. In the end, it turned out to be a peak that it could never surpass. Its 2009 release saw a number of film production companies jump on one almighty bandwagon, churning out countless 3D-rendered creations. Today, 3D productions are back on the decline, and takings have reduced 1% every year since 2009. 3D is back on a steady decline towards the cinematic abyss. And for me, that’s exactly where it belongs.
There are a number of issues with the latest renaissance of 3D. Central to the debate is the reasoning behind its reintroduction to the industry. The cinema, as a business model, is under increased amounts of stress. The rise of the internet has made piracy an ever more prominent issue. TV has seen significant investment in recent years, pinching star names to spearhead a high end drama that lasts for weeks, and often surpasses the mediocre offerings in theatres. With streaming services such as Netflix going from strength to strength, the cinema needed a fresh injection of hope.
Back to the Future
To signify a new start, the industry turned to century-old technology, namely 3D. Hoping the viewing audience wouldn’t notice, cinema repackaged ageing tech, strapped on some shiny lights and created a gimmick that’s high on misdirection.
3D films are notoriously expensive to shoot. In order to get it right, you need the time, budget and basic concept of say, Avatar, to all blend together in cinematic harmony. Instead, film-goers were ‘treated’ to a glut of titles converted into 3D, not shot in it.
The concept itself is ultimately flawed, distracting filmmakers eyes from what’s important in a film. Rather than concentrating on characters, plot and general narrative, producers became obsessed with slanting a scene to work in 3D. Experts in cinematography took a dislike to it due to the negative effects it has on the overall viewing experience. You’re very aware of the extra dimension when watching a 3D film, and it often has a detrimental effect on the air of realism directors try so hard to maintain. The addition of 3D can often be entirely irrelevant, amounting to that one scene where something very obviously jumps out of the screen towards you.
And the price for this often bolted on piece of mock image enhancement? Not only did cinemas charge you for the ridiculous and uncomfortable glasses, but also create an additional cost for the pleasure of viewing a film in 3D. The additional mark-up cinemas could make over an ordinary 2D showing was a major influence in its rollout in cinemas.
Film enthusiasts were taken for a fool, but ultimately, the industry was rumbled.
Supporters of 3D viewing will no doubt point to the fact 12 of the top 13 grossing films in 2014 were available to some degree in 3-Dimensions. Certainly for financial reason then, 3D films will continue to crop up, particularly in superhero and mass market action flicks. Despite making a degree of financial sense, the films themselves are shot in 2D, poorly converted to 3D. Regardless, the list is populated with a number samey action romps that would have made up the most lucrative of the year anyway.
Movie Gimmick, TV Gimmick
Potentially joining it on the entertainment scrapheap, 3D TV. TV manufacturers are endlessly searching for a breakthrough in visual tech in an attempt to keep their TV ranges appealing to the consumer. No doubt linked to the bursting of the 3D film bubble, 3D TVs have never really seen a major uptake both by consumers, or by broadcasters. The BBC and ESPN dropped their entire 3D broadcasting plans in 2013. Despite Sky insisting they would continue ahead with their 3D scheduling of Sky Sports, no Premier League matches for this season have been aired on their dedicated 3D channel.
Ofcom reported in 2013 that only 9% of households owned a 3D-ready TV, and even less were using the available services. The cold attitude from broadcasters towards 3D is unlikely to see this figure rise anytime soon. The promotion of glasses-less 3D TV’s are a potential avenue for future investment for TV manufactures. As is 4K, which essentially doubles the pixel rate of current HD 3D screens. But with that also struggling to make a break through in the market, we won’t be holding our breath.
Ultimately, the quality of the product is key. 3D just doesn’t quite cut it for the viewing audience. Cinema, as an industry, may have to look elsewhere.
For me, cutting down the ever spiralling costs of entering the theatre in the first place should be a priority. At £6 a month for a boat load of outstanding content, subscription services offer unrivalled value in the entertainment sector. But the cinema experience will always have a place in the hearts of film lovers the world over, and concentrating on closing that gap may haul back some of the disillusioned movie naysayers.