The pairing of an exclusive in-theater teaser trailer for James Cameron‘s long-awaited Avatar sequence with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness proved a significant moment beyond the Marvel movie’s heroic $449 million global opening (including $187 million domestically) during the May 6-8 weekend. Nearly 10 percent of moviegoers in North America opted to pay 20 to 30 percent more for a 3D ticket, an unheard-of jump for a format that many had written off even before the COVID-19 crisis.
No film exemplified the promise of 3D more than 2009’s Avatar, which, with $8.45 billion in global ticket sales, remains the top-grossing film of all time. But in the years that followed, the lure of higher box office returns derailed the 3D train just as it was leaving the station. Now, Disney and 20th Century (and their rivals) hope Avatar: The Way of Water revives the format as a key differentiator. “At a time when people are used to being at home watching content, anything that encourages them to go to theaters has to be a positive for us and the industry in general,” says Disney’s chief of global film distribution Tony Chambers. “It’s all about the experience. If done right, people will come out again and again. The messaging won’t be to see Avatar 2 in 3D but to see it for the experience.”
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But moviegoers will have to be re-educated. “We believe 3D creates a more immersive experience in our narrative storytelling. We don’t play 3D as a world coming out of a window. We play it as a window into the world,” Jon LandauCameron’s producing partner at Lightstorm Entertainment, says from New Zealand, where Avatar 2 is in post. “We are giving people something that they cannot get anywhere else. We need the exhibition community to be supportive of that and to understand that we are competing with different technologies than are in people’s homes.”
The latest wave of 3D was enabled by the transition from film to digital projection systems. There were some early digital 3D releases for the limited number of supported auditoriums, starting with Disney’s Chicken Little in 2005. And led by format champion Jeffrey Katzenbergthe DreamWorks Animation slate got the 3D treatment starting with Monsters vs. Aliens in 2009.
For many moviegoers, the first time they donned 3D glasses was to see Avatar. The film’s 3D box office share was an astounding 70 percent-plus, helping 3D grosses hit a record $1.85 billion in 2010. But then there was a string of releases like 2010’s Clash of the Titans, which received a rushed 3D conversion to jump on the bandwagon and was widely regarded as a poor experience, souring moviegoers on the format.
“I think what happened is some people got lost, and there’s a period of time where people felt that converting something to 3D made it a better movie; 3D does not change the movie, 3D exacerbates whatever the movie is,” Landau says. “I think that people were doing it as an afterthought to a process, as opposed to [using] 3D as a creative element — no different than lighting, no different than focus, no different than camera movement — that a filmmaker needs to bring a sensibility of how to use that to enhance the narrative storytelling.”
Adds a top studio executive, “Hollywood got greedy like they always do.”
By 2017, 3D domestic grosses tumbled 55 percent from 2010, with many movies earning a scant 17 percent of their revenue from 3D tickets. The downturn prompted Imax — a longtime proponent of the format — to announce it was going to shift away from so many 3D releases. The company was wise. By 2019, 3D revenue was down more than 70 percent from 2010 levels.
“Warming up 3D has to be done thoughtfully and carefully,” says Imax Entertainment president Megan Colligan. “There were a lot of lessons learned. You’re not going to see every movie converted. We are really working with the studios and exhibitors to figure out how to get people used to it again. James Cameron understands the medium — 3D creates a richer, deeper experience when it serves the story. Intention is everything.”
It also helps that consumers are willing to pay a significant upcharge for premium 2D formats, such as Imax. The appetite for these formats has increased throughout the pandemic, including 36 percent of the opening weekend of Doctor Strange 2.
For its part, Disney is offering 3D versions of its event films leading up to Avatar 2including Pixar’s lightyear this summer. And Universal’s July tentpole Jurassic World: Dominion will get a major 3D push.
The format is still incredibly popular in some parts of the world: 45 percent of Brazil’s opening weekend grosses for Doctor Strange 2 came from 3D. In Germany, it was 50 percent.
One source says every Hollywood studio needs to do its part if the 3D revival is to work. When the original Avatar came out, the release rewrote the book on presentation quality by creating different versions of the movie (including versions at various light levels, aspect ratios and aimed at different 3D systems) with the goal of ensuring that each theater could show the movie in the best way possible. For Avatar 2the team is again at work with highly ambitious plans to make many versions for the different theatrical systems.
“We’ve already started the research,” says Landau. “Geoff Burdick (Lightstorm’s senior vp production services and technology) and our team at Lightstorm has been very engaged with both Disney and the exhibition community directly.”
They also have been working with the cinema tech developers.
“Even before the new Avatar trailer was shown at CinemaCon [the theater owners conference held in April]we indeed have seen great interest from exhibition on what new products exist that can elevate the cinema experience,” says Brian Claypool, executive vp cinema at projector maker Christie. “Higher brightness 3D and the capability of supporting higher frame rates in 4K have certainly seen an increase in recent conversations with customers.”
Cinema technology has evolved greatly during the past decade, which also will help elevate each 3D presentation. For instance, 3D glasses may cut down visible light, making the picture darker, but brighter laser projectors can help address this issue. Cameron is also incorporating a high frame rate of 48 frames per second. “Our approach is that a high frame rate is something that creates a better experience, where it gets rid of the artifacts of an archaic frame rate for certain shots. If somebody is sitting there static and just talking to camera, it doesn’t necessarily help,” explains Landau. “We will use it to our advantage, where the high frame rate helps us.”
Theater owners certainly aren’t opposed to a 3D revival, since it also boosts their revenue. “3D is a viable option when it’s well done, but it needs to be an integral part of the storytelling,” says National Association of Theater Owners vp and chief communications officer Patrick Corcoran. “It is not the answer to everything but cannot be treated as an afterthought.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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