Is The Digital 3D Movie “Fad” Over?

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Some moviegoers believe that digital 3D is a fad, while many of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood would be quick to disagree. Movie theaters are betting big on cinema’s digital 3D future, retrofitting many of their theaters with digital projection. And why not? The financial statistics so far have shown that moviegoers are seeking out 3D screens, which often get 5-10 times more ticket sales per screen than 35mm theaters. Oh, and did we mention that 3D screens usually charge 30% more than the average 35mm presentation? All this you probably know. But did you know that the per screen average of 3D movies is in a decline?


The Los Angeles Times reports that the 3D per screen averages have dropped over the last six months, which may suggest that audience interest for this new format might be “waning.” Here are the statistics:

  • My Bloody Valentine 3-D: 6.4x
  • Coraline: 3x
  • Monsters vs Aliens: 2.1x
  • Up: 2.2x
  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: 1.4x

Does this mean that the Digital 3D “fad” is finally coming to an end? I don’t think so.

Full disclosure: I’m actually in the camp that believes that 3D isn’t a fad. But at the same time, unlike Jeffrey Katzenberg, I don’t think every movie 10 years from now will be projected in 3D.

The amount of 3D theaters is on the rise. When My Bloody Valentine 3-D hit theaters, it played on 900 screens in 3D (LA Times claims 1,033, but I’ll trust the New York Times number), and another 1,600 screens in 2D. When Monsters vs. Aliens came out in March, there were 1,550 digital 3D screens, but the movie played on over 2,586 screens in 2D. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs was released on 1,620 3D screens (and another 2,482 screens in 2D).

Splitting the Vote:
Could it be that the 62% rise in the amount of available 3D screens could have split the vote a bit? If you’re selling out in every 3D screen and double the amount of 3D screens, chances are that you’ll no longer be selling out every 3D screen. Audiences no longer need to travel far to find a 3D capable theater. As the 3D theater count rises, the per screen ratio is bound to come down. That is to be expected.

The frequency of 3D releases is on a larger rise than the amount of 3D screens and playdates. The first six months of 2009 had six 3D releases, while the second half has more than nine. With a slowly growing amount of 3D screens and the amount of 3D films on the rise, distributors have been forced into shorter theatrical 3D play runs. For example, Coraline was kicked off 3D screens after only two weekends due to the Jonas Brothers Concert Experience. More screens could mean that audiences will have a chance to see a movie in 3D on the big screen after the first couple weeks of release, and also allow multiple 3D releases to play at the multiplexes.

If the studios market 3D, people will see the 3D. It’s obvious why more people saw My Bloody Valentine 3D in 3D theaters than 2D theaters — the studio marketed the hell out of the 3D presentation. Hey, it was even in the title. Coraline was also marketed heavily on being the first stop animated film presented in 3D.  Monsters vs. Aliens also was heavily marketed on the 3D presentation, but was offered in almost 2 times more 2D screens than a film like My Bloody Valentine.

3D isn’t a fad but it has been a gimmick. As the frequency of 3D releases rises, audiences will likely care less to see every movie in 3D. While I don’t believe that 3D is a fad, I do think it has worked as a gimmick in the early adoption days. By gimmick, I mean that more people have likely seen movies they wouldn’t have otherwise had an interest in watching, just because they were being released in 3D. 3D became the selling point. As 3D becomes more of a common place, the experience becomes less of an event. I’m sure people have and will stop seeing movies simply because they are 3D. They will probably still choose to see a movie in 3D presentation when given the choice over a traditional 35mm print, especially in the case of an event movie release.

And lets not forget that James Cameron’s Avatar hits theaters in December, and almost everyone is expecting that release to raise the bar and revolutionize the experience of watching a movie in 3D. Who knows if that will actually happen. But I think the ratio numbers of a movie like that will be very telling.

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