No ‘Avatar’ in 3D’s Next Wave

The format needs another blockbuster, but the newest batch of releases aren’t likely to help

A new wave of 3D movies is coming to theaters.

Unfortunately, it’s not what the format needs.

The box-office flop "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" (below) was the first of August's trio of new films in the format that's supposed to be revolutionizing theatergoing. Of the three, only one – the dance movie “Step Up 3D,” which opens Friday – will have been shot in 3D.

 The Revenge of Kitty GaloreThe other two were conversions, shot in 2D and then dimensionalized in post-production: “Cats & Dogs," which finished sixth at the box office with a take of only $12.3 million, and the horror flick “Piranha 3D,” an August 20 release.

And for the rest of 2010, the pickings appear paltry. Certainly, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" will be a big ticket item, the reliable DreamWorks Animation will release "Megamind," and "Jackass 3D" might actually take the format in disgusting new directions. 

But otherwise, it's a slate of horror movies, questionable animated films and sci-fi: "Resident Evil: Afterlife," "Alpha and Omega," "Legend of the Guardians," "Saw VII," "My Soul to Take," "Tangled," "Yogi Bear."

The upcoming films use a mixture of techniques: “Resident Evil,” “Saw” and “Jackass” were filmed in 3D; “Harry Potter” and “My Soul to Take” are conversions; and the others are animated, where a 3D effect can be produced simply by rendering another “eye” from the original computer files.

The inconsistency is not great news at a time when 3D market share is declining (see accompanying story, "The Rise and Fall of 3D") and the audience has shown dissatisfaction with the ticket surcharge and the quality of films, especialy like "Clash of the Titans" and “The Last Airbender.”

What 3D could use now is another showpiece like “Avatar” or “Toy Story 3.” Teen-oriented dancers, talking animals and killer fish probably aren’t going to do it, no matter how good they look.

“It’s going to take a movie that uses the medium in service of the story the way that Jim Cameron did to get people excited and feel that it’s worthwhile to pay that ticket price,” says Rob Hummel, the CEO of Prime Focus, a Los Angeles-based company whose services include 3D conversions.

“I think we need to be careful.  If the audience is going to pay a premium, we’d better give them a premium experience.”

Hummel would not go so far as to say that premium experience has been missing from recent 3D releases, but others are not so diplomatic. The Los Angeles Times review of “Cats & Dogs” griped about how viewers were being forced to “pay a premium surcharge to receive absolutely nothing of value in return,” and suggested, “If there ever was a film to thumb your nose at the recent spate of 3D ticket-gouging, this is it.”

“The conversion process is to genuine 3D — the kind you see in ‘Toy Story 3′ or ‘How to Train Your Dragon’— what colorization is to color: a ghoulish simulation,” wrote Ty Burr in the Boston Globe.

Even at Comic-Con, which should presumably be a prime market for fans of 3D, the audience routinely booed nearly every mention of the process, erupting into cheers when director Edgar Wright declared that his “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” would be released in 2D “with regular film prices,” and then added, “How do you feel about watching a film without sunglasses?”

“When ‘Avatar’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ were fighting for screens earlier in the year, it felt as if there was a real excitement about 3D,” says a studio executive who asked not to be identified. “But that feeling goes away pretty quickly when you’re paying extra for bad 3D, or 3D you hardly even notice."

“I’m not saying they’re bad movies, because I haven’t seen themm" the studio executive said. "But they’re not big, mainstream 3D movies that knock your socks off, which is what we need.”

“Absolutely, the conversions have hurt people’s perceptions of 3D,” says Hummel. “But where I find people to be naïve is they assume it’s the conversion that’s the problem. 3D is like the Wild West out there — you need to really help it along.”

3D, he agrees, is at a crucial point in its evolution, and a risky one.

“We have to be careful with this medium,” he says, “to make sure it gets the proper care and feeding as it goes out into the wild and crazy world of exhibition, where so many variables exist. Clearly, there have been movies where the studios have made sure that things are taken care of properly.”

He pauses, and chooses his words carefully. “And then some studios, maybe, need to be a little more careful.”