3D Lessons Hollywood Could Learn From ‘Gravity’

3D Lessons Hollywood Could Learn From 'Gravity'

Alonso Cuaron's space drama is an opportunity for studios to reconsider how they produce and market the format in the U.S.

Despite its towering success, to call “Gravity” a revival for 3D would be a cosmic stretch: Luring 80 percent of moviegoers to the premium format required an unlikely fusion of a crack director, a compelling effects-driven story and perhaps the rarest element of all — studio patience.

“You’re not going to see a wave of films like ‘Gravity’ unless the studios start saying its OK to take five years to make a movie and offer master classes for directors,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “To achieve what (director Alfonso Cuaron) did means breaking ground in filmmaking and technology.”

Yet Cuaron's space drama — whose 3D tickets accounted for 80 percent of its $55.6 opening weekend haul, better than ”Life of Pi” or “Avatar” – is an opportunity for studios to reassess how they produce and market the format to U.S. audiences.

After a summer that saw films like “World War Z” and “Monsters University” fail to get even 40 percent 3D returns, “Gravity” demonstrates that if you do 3D right, they will come.

Also read: George Clooney: ‘Gravity’ Is an Argument for 3D

“Last summer, audiences weren't saying they didn't want to see movies in 3D, they were saying they only want to see certain movies in 3D,” said Kristen Simmons, senior vice president of the tracking and research firm Worldwide Motion Picture Group.

What worked in the case of “Gravity,” Simmons and others argue, was that its marketing campaign emphasized that the special-effects spectacle demands to be seen on the biggest of screens. Unsurprisingly, “Gravity”s’ IMAX screenings were another source of strength, generating $11.8 million, or more than 20 percent of its domestic debut.

See photos: 10 Unforgettable Space Odysseys

Cooking up the kind of money shots that sold “Gravity” — bravura sequences of space debris hurtling toward a shuttle or Sandra Bullock desperately reaching for a tether — require banking on an A-list director. Like “Life of Pi” and “Hugo,” which were overseen by Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, respectively, some of the sizzle factor had to do with discovering what a bold stylist like Cuaron could achieve with 3D.

“Great filmmakers move the medium forward,” William Sherak, president of the 3D conversion company Stereo D, said. “Because 3D has moved so fast, we forget that it really only got popular five years ago. It takes time for great filmmakers to play with the medium. The execution is not simple, but the recipe is — bet on great directors.”

Also read: 3D Still A Hit With Foreign Audiences, But Domestically It’s a Different Story

It also helps that Cuaron always conceived of “Gravity” as a 3D film. Instead of rushing to tack on a hasty conversion, the director worked hand-in-hand with Framestore and Prime Focus, the companies behind the film's 3D effects. Shots were dreamed up to take full advantage of the depth and perspective that 3D enables.

“I firmly believe that the way to get the best 3D is to move away from just doing conversion on the end of project towards more collaboration on the 3D throughout the filming,” said Richard Baker, senior stereo supervisor at Prime Focus’ U.K. office.

“It's one of those films where the 3D is integral to the movie and its emotional journey,” added Matthew Bristowe, a senior vice president of production at Prime Focus.

Yet that takes time and money. Prime Focus said compared to other films, they spent three times as long on their section of “Gravity.” For his part, Cuaron labored on the picture for four and half years. Warner Bros. delayed the film's opening by nearly a year to give the team the time it needed to execute the complicated effects work, which could be difficult to replicate — given that patience is not in steady supply in the movie business.

Also read: Did ‘Gravity’ Really End as It Seemed? An Alternate Theory (Spoilers)

One other quality that seemed to work in “Gravity”s’ favor was that unlike “Turbo,” the animated family flop that hit new lows when just 25 percent of its opening weekend came from 3D screenings, its audience was primarily comprised of adults. Over its opening weekend, nearly 60 percent of the crowd that bought tickets for “Gravity” was over the age of 35 — a key to its success.

Families looking to economize or sick of seeing their children fiddle with glasses may be over 3D, but older moviegoers don't have the same financial or eyewear issues.

“Don't discount the older movie-goer,” Simmons said. “Too often films target younger audiences and don't provide enough material for older moviegoers to see in 3D or IMAX. Remember older moviegoers have money they want to spend and they want to see movies in theaters.”

Also read: 10 of Sandra Bullock's Biggest Box Office Bombs and Blockbusters

Building on the success of “Gravity” may also require becoming more selective with how studios apply 3D. This summer, nearly all big-budget action, animated and superhero films were released in 3D. It's not clear that each benefited as stateside audiences became more selective.

“Studios need to get smarter in terms of what they make in 3D and they need to get smarter about how they schedule those movies,” Eric Wold, a media analyst at B. Riley & Co., said. “The 3D box office had been soft because we had a flood of 3D movies hitting the market and most of them had no business being made in 3D.”

Also read:How ‘Gravity’ Revolutionized Visual Effects and Blasted Sandra Bullock Into Space

Wold says upcoming films like “Thor: The Dark World” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” will benefit from having less competition for 3D dollars.

But getting studios to be choosier could be tough now that the cost of conversion has dropped from as much as 15 percent of a production's expenses to as little as  $5 million to $8 million. That means that studios have little financial reason not to make movies in the format.

And the popularity of 3D overseas will keep it around.

“If the U.S. doesn't embrace 3D then what happens is the box office continues to be driven toward China, Korea and Japan, which is where movies are making their money,” Barry Sandrew, founder, chief creative officer and chief technology officer of Legend 3D, said. “Asia just loves 3D movies and wearing glasses is not viewed as a negative. It's a positive, because it's basically an indication that an experience is premium and special.”

For 91 minutes, at least, “Gravity” provided the same feeling of specialness for American moviegoers.

Todd Cunningham contributed to this report.

  • mfs

    I find it interesting that the subject of 3D plays so prominently in so many stories along with the question of whether Gravity alters the way we see the future of 3D. The question of great directors aside (and who could argue with the likelihood that great directors are more likely to make good movies than mediocre directors), I would argue that 3D really didn't have all that much to do with the success of Gravity. Perhaps I would think otherwise if I had seen it on a normal size screen rather than in an IMAX theater. But regardless, the point I would make is that the analysts have it backwards. Gravity is a character driven movie with an actress who delivers a great performance. Without that, without the character and the performance, you would have nothing, you would have another empty film with lots of special effects. At least as far as the IMAX viewing is concerned, I'd bet it would be as effective in 2D as in 3D.

    • SallyinChicago

      Agree. I saw it in 2D and I was on the edge of the seat, I couldn't breathe. This was so well directed, so well acted, it could have been in black and white and still would have soared.

  • Adamfree

    Thank you and agreed. Shooting 3D is different. It is wider… It is more portraiture and action within frame rather then cutting around the frame. No OS shots and Close ups become very tricky. Cuaron and Lubeski are wonderful and I applaud thme and the studio for trusting them to find the cinematic truth. Also I thank The Wrap for writing a good, non anti-3D article.

  • Cliffhanger77

    I've started avoiding 3D simply because I've seen so much BAD 3D – the kind that vastly diminishes brightness and acuity and makes the whole screen view seem muddy and murky. I will try “Gravity” in 3D, though, and see if it changes my mind.

    • SallyinChicago

      If you see Gravity in 2D you will still be overwhelmed!

    • JustLurkin

      An excellent attitude to have. Having eaten a dozen torturous examples of poorly prepared /* insert your most disliked food here */ does not negate the possibility that you would enjoy that food prepared by someone who knows what the frell they are doing. As with musical arrangements or stage performances. So, why not equally so with motion pictures?

  • SallyinChicago

    I just saw Gravity in 2d….I cannot sit through 3D wearing those stupid glasses….and it was glorious. Even in 2D the movie is a great view…and OMG Sandra Bullock — just spectacular. I couldn't get the character out of my head, I was so invested in her.

    • JustLurkin

      Cannot or will not? Characterizing the glasses as “stupid” would lead one to be more inclined to believe the latter… that you have chosen to believe that 3D is 100% a gimmick – that it is beneath you and that you can't be bothered with investing even 1-1/2 hours to discover if it can be used in such a way as to advance the cinematic art. it is not much of a stretch to expect that had you been born in an earlier time, you would have railed against the advent of sound or of color as being detrimental to the motion picture experience.

      It goes without saying that there are poorly executed 3D films. But then, that is true of 2D as well, yes? Perhaps you might be willing to consider that as with any other cinematic tool, success [or culpability] lies not with the tool but with the artist who wields it.

  • Patti

    I have a tendency toward seasickness, and 3-D makes me nauseous. End of story.