Like a Velociraptor bursting through the screen in “Jurassic World,” 3D releases have roared back this summer after a dismal 2014 when the box office for 3D and giant-screen films seemed almost two-dimensional, delivering just 13 percent of domestic grosses.
The summer’s biggest hits have seen eye-popping returns for films that play in plus-size formats demanding $3-$4 surcharges. Roughly 48 percent of the record $208 million opening-weekend gross for Universal’s “Jurassic World” came from 3D tickets, while RealD 3D screens drew roughly $56 million. IMAX delivered $18 million from 364 screens, a hulking $50,000 per-screen average, and eight of the film’s top 10 locations. And the 400 Premium Large Format screens brought in a company-record $13.5 million, topping the $11.8 million mark set in April by “Furious 7.”
The special effects-laden “Jurassic World” and its fearsome monster dinos were a natural for giant screens, of course, and the film’s staying power was just as impressive. Its second week, the film generated 47 percent of its grosses in 3D.
“That showed that consumers were going out of their way to see it, or see it a second time, in 3D,” Eric Wold, an analyst for B. Riley & Co., told TheWrap. “And that underscores a resurgence in underlying consumer demand for the format that we haven’t seen since ‘Gravity’ and ‘Life of Pi’ back in 2013.”
And it’s not just the dinos who’ve been leading the charge. 3D also provided a big boost to the first-weekend grosses of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (45 percent), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “San Andreas” (44 percent). (On the other hand, “Inside Out” earned just 28 percent of its $90.4 million debut earnings from 3D.) Overseas, the resurgence of interest in 3D screenings is pushing the box office to record-breaking numbers as well.
“Moviegoers are showing they are willing to spend to see good 3D and large-format movies,” Wold said. “But they also realize now that even the best 3D isn’t going to make a crappy movie good. Audiences have become more sophisticated, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for them, the movies and these formats.”
Wall Street has been impressed by the big numbers for megahits like “Jurassic World,” and investors are especially excited by the prospect of more giant-screen-friendly action epics due in theaters later this year. They include “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” the thriller “Everest,” the James Bond saga “Spectre” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“It’s great to see 3D back in the conversation again,” said Anthony Marcoly, president of RealD, the company behind the technology most theaters use to deliver the format.
James Cameron‘s “Avatar” put 3D on the modern map in 2009, with 71 percent of its $77 million opening weekend haul coming from 3D screenings. The following year, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Tron Legacy” earned 70 percent and 82 percent of their first weekend grosses from 3D, respectively, and a total of 26 3D large-format films generated $2.2 billion, or about 21 percent of the domestic total.
But then a rash of inferior imitators and poor-quality conversions soured consumers, exhibitors and studios on the format. The nadir seemed to come last year when, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, 47 3D films delivered $1.4 billion, or about 13 percent of domestic grosses.
“After a period when they rushed into it, then another when they ran from it — at the same time exhibitors were running from programming it — the studios are today doing a great job of determining when 3D makes sense for a film and when it doesn’t,” he said.
Effects, special cameras and projectors aside, it eventually comes down to storytelling and the movies themselves, according to Cinemark Theaters CEO Tim Warner.
“The studios have not only delivered a great line of product, but they’ve spread it out in terms of the calendar and also in terms of variety, and that’s really helped,” Warner told TheWrap. “Look at this weekend — between the holdovers (“Jurassic” and “Inside Out”), ‘Magic Mike’ and ‘Terminator,’ there really is something for everybody.”
And success breeds momentum and more success, Warner said.
“When you have big movies in the marketplace, people come and see the trailers for movies like ‘Minions’ and ‘Ant-Man’ and on and on. It builds upon itself and they come again and again,” he said.
Significantly, studios are promoting the premium formats as well, as Universal did with “Jurassic World,” which was something you didn’t see a year or two ago. This weekend, Paramount and Skydance Productions have teamed to create a series of limited collectible “Terminator: Genisys” posters and movie tickets for moviegoers who see the film in RealD 3D in Cinemark, AMC, Carmike, Marcus and Regal theaters.
“Momentum has shifted,” Marcoly said, noting that filmmakers are more frequently planning movies with 3D and giant screens in mind. “We have directors like Robert Zemeckis with ‘The Walk’ and Ridley Scott with ‘The Martian’ coming to us and saying to us, ‘This is the way I want to make my movie.'”
The box office momentum of this summer is having a real impact on the industry’s key players, many of which are publicly traded companies.
RealD, which announced in February that it would consider “strategic alternatives” following an October bid by Starboard, is even more in play as an acquisition target. Wold notes the firm’s growth potential in China, where it is heavily invested, and its bargain-level stock price in the wake of Monday’s market-wide sell-off from the Greek economic collapse. The stock closed Tuesday at $12.33 per share.
IMAX shares have climbed 30 percent since the start of the year, to $41.21, on news of a planned public in its China unit, increased scheduling flexibility and booming international box office. Wold projects a whopping 28 percent gain in global grosses for the second half of the year over last year, and boosted the price target to $53.
Cinemark, the largest PLF screen operator, partnered with RealD in April to bring the tech firm’s new GS Cinema System to 20 Cinemark XD locations in the U.S. and Latin America. That, coupled with the summer surge and bright outlook for box office this year and in 2016, has the stock holding steady at around $40. Wold gives the stock a neutral rating due to its high entry point.