How Disney Blockbusters Boost a Fizzling 3D Format

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“Avengers: Endgame” couldn’t have reached “Avatar” without 3D, but is the format recovering from a big drop in revenue in 2018?


The struggling 3D movie market may have found an antidote to its continued downward slide — Disney. Earlier this year, the Motion Picture Association of America’s annual THEME report had plenty of good news from the 2018 box office, but not for the 3D glasses popularized by “Avatar” a decade ago. Global grosses for the format, according to the report, dropped 20% year-over-year to $6.7 billion, falling back to 2014 levels after three consecutive years above $8 billion. Then “Avengers: Endgame” had its historic $1.2 billion opening weekend back in late April, bumping up 3D ticket sales as moviegoers flocked to theaters to watch Iron Man’s swan song. Marvel fans, excited to see how the Avengers would undo Thanos’ acts of evil, paid the premium 3D surcharge, which accounted for more than $1 billion of “Endgame”‘s record $2.79 billion global gross, with 53% of its global opening coming from the 3D format. Disney this year may become the first studio ever to gross $10 billion at the global box office in one year, with the all-time record holding “Endgame” leading a fleet of six films that each are expected to gross at least $1 billion. While excellent development and marketing are the core reason behind its success, the 3D market is giving the studio a key advantage.  Premium tickets for 3D and other special formats like IMAX were key to the theatrical runs of both “Avengers” and “Avatar.” But there was genuine interest in seeing “Avatar” with glasses on as James Cameron prioritized the then-nascent format in the film’s shooting.  Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock said that in the decade since “Avatar” came out, rising movie ticket and concession prices have come to the forefront of consumers’ minds. As it costs more for a family of four to go to the movies, paying the extra cost for 3D glasses may be less appealing. “Expensive tickets are making some think more not just about what movies they pay more to see on the big screen but how they see them,” Bock said. “Maybe subscription ticket programs might mitigate this if they include premium screenings, but it’s going to take time for enough customers to buy in for that to have a sizable impact.” So how much of the interest in a 3D “Endgame” was fueled by high demand for a scarcity of seats during opening weekend? One possible clue may come from “The Lion King,” another movie that has conquered the box office, grossing $1 billion in 19 days, but didn’t prompt global sellouts as did “Endgame.” Much like Jon Favreau’s remake of “The Jungle Book” in 2016, 3D was a significant selling point of the film, and on its opening weekend, “The Lion King” made $191 million of its $531 million opening — or 36% — from 3D. On the whole, 3D is making a smaller percentage of the total gross for the films than it did just four years ago. From 2011 to 2015, 3D made up at least 50 percent of the combined grosses for the films which offered it as an option at theaters. This ratio peaked in 2012, when 3D made up $6.5 billion, or 59%, of the $10.9 billion gross for its films. In 3D’s peak year of 2015, the format’s $8.2 billion annual gross made roughly half of the $16.2 billion global gross of 3D releases. But since 2016, 3D’s share has decreased; and in 2018, a year where “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Ready Player One” were among the 3D offerings, the $6.3 billion grossed by 3D screenings accounted for roughly 34% of the $18.5 billion grossed by 3D films.  That trend looks like it will continue. In the first half of 2019, 3D films grossed $10.5 billion worldwide. Of that amount, $3.8 billion, or 36%, came from 3D screenings, and roughly a third of that total came from “Avengers: Endgame” alone. With “The Lion King” already having a good 3D run and films like “Frozen II,” “Jumanji: The Next Level” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” coming later this year, it’s likely that total 3D grosses will see an uptick from 2018. And since Disney is providing most of the 3D offerings most anticipated by moviegoers, the format should continue to help the studio as it enjoys the biggest box office year by a distributor in industry history. But the diminished impact of 3D on blockbusters’ overall grosses is likely to continue. It’s also possible that there won’t be another film that makes the majority of its gross from 3D until the man who started the trend, James Cameron, returns with “Avatar 2” in late 2021. “People are being more and more selective about 3D. It’s becoming too much of a distraction for them,” said one premium format executive.”It’s going to take a film conceptualized in 3D to sell 3D tickets the way they used to back in the early part of the decade, but fewer directors are interested in going in that path.” Some premium format companies are keeping 3D in their plans.  ICE, a France-based immersive theater venture that will expand to Los Angeles later this year, says that it considers 3D a core part of its expansion moving forward. Films like the “Avatar” sequels, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” and the recently announced “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will be among the films supported by ICE in the future.