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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.