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3D’s Last Hope: Spielberg, Scorsese and Bay

Post-”Avatar,“ the technology has lost its wow factor, but a group of A-list directors could reverse the flailing box-office technology trend

The A-list cavalry is riding to the rescue of 3D.

It may be the format's last chance.

Increasingly squishy 3D openings — most recently for the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean” movie and “Kung Fu Panda 2” — have left the movie industry panicked that the format ushered in so spectacularly by “Avatar” has lost its "wow" factor.

But before the technology is counted out entirely, there's a veritable Panzer division of directors — from Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson — lining up to storm the 3D fortress.

Also read: 3D Slammed Anew After Format's Weak 'Pirates 4' Opening

Film critics and industry executives have high hopes that with these directors' reputations on the line, these will succeed where others have failed. Here's some of the big talents on the 3D horizon:

* Martin Scorsese is shooting the children's film "Hugo Cabret," slated for a on Nov. 23 release.

* Steven Spielberg's motion-capture animated "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn" hits theaters on Dec. 23. 

* Michael Bay has apparently matched the visual splendor of 'Avatar' with  "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," according to the studio. It premieres on June 29.

 * Jackson is currently filming "Lord of the Rings" prequel "The Hobbit" in 3D, with the first of the two-part series hitting theaters on Dec. 14, 2012.

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“We need to have more directors who incorporate an understanding of how 3D works into their product," Vincent Pace, co-founder along with James Cameron of the technology company Cameron-Pace 3D, told TheWrap. "It’s an ingredient, like salt to a chef. Michael Bay’s on that path. Martin Scorsese’s on that path. They are embracing the technology. They are adding value to the show and weaving it in,”

Indeed, what seems to have been missing since "Avatar" is a film that has seen the format as more than a gimmick to rack up higher ticket prices.

Among other critically lauded auteurs currently developing or in production on 3D features are Ang Lee with “Life of Pi,” Ridley Scott with “Prometheus,” David Fincher with “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Alfonso Cuaron with “Gravity.”

They'd better move fast.

Even with theater chains such as Regal doubling the number of 3D screens this year, more and more moviegoers are choosing to see films in 2D rather than 3D. 

“Pirates 4,” for instance, made just 46 percent of its opening weekend gross from 3D theaters and “Kung Fu Panda 2” banked a measly 45 percent of its premiere weekend take in the format, according to a report from BTIG Research. (Not factoring in Imax 3D, the "Pirates 4" percentage is 37%, as indicated in the chart above.)

Contrast that to a year ago when films such as “Shrek Forever After” or “Toy Story 3” made 61 and 59 percent of their opening grosses respectively in 3D. Of course, the format does continue to do well abroad. 

"It’s only a short set of data, but if the trend persists, we have to start asking more questions,” Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott, told TheWrap. "It might not be cyclical. It could be 3D is just a fad."

Even 3D companies themselves think that its time to take stock of the technology's role in the movie landscape. 

“This is a gut check about what real value is being added by bringing 3D to the table,” Pace told TheWrap. “Much to my dismay, filmmakers have been concentrating on making 3D movies, but they haven’t been concentrating on what makes a good 3D movie. The wheel’s have come off the train a little bit.”

Instead, too many movies have been rushed into production to take advantage of the 3D trend without proper planning, or they've been saddled with sloppy conversion work, as in the case of the critically panned "Clash of the Titans."

One rare exception was "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," which Warners halted 3D conversion on a month before it hit theaters, saying the work on the project didn't meet the studio's standards. The second part of the film franchise's finale will be released in both 2D and 3D when it opens this July. 

The technology's boosters believe that the best way to arrest the catastrophic trend is the upcoming release of 3D movies from true visual stylists. 

It can't be an accident that the 3D film that has drawn the biggest kudos for its use of the technology post-"Avatar" is "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the cave-painting documentary from legendary director Werner Herzog. 

Most of the films from the big-ticket filmmakers are still in their nascent stages, but individuals familiar with the projects of Bay, Scorsese and Spielberg (all of which have wrapped), say that from storyboarding to shooting, the three directors took great pains to map out how the added dimensionality could ratchet up the drama and action in their films.

The implication is that with their reputations on the line, these filmmakers didn’t rush their films into production to piggyback on a trend, but took the time necessary to create a strong production. After all, “Avatar” took more than three years to produce and film, and nearly a decade to plan.

“‘Avatar' worked because it was immersive, but 3D can go farther than that. If the filmmaker is incredibly visual, the depth it provides can be an incredible storytelling tool,” Steve Schklair, founder of 3D technology provider 3ality Digital, told TheWrap.

Without the bump in ticket sales, 3D may no longer be a worthwhile investment. It is commonplace for productions in the format to be bedeviled by delays and cost-overruns. For instance, “Transformers” cost  $30 million to be shot in 3D and lost the first day of filming due to technical problems, according to an individual with knowledge of the production.

Still, for the present, at least, rising costs and production delays haven't dimmed studios' enthusiasm.

“Hollywood, in time-tested fashion, has found a way to not kill but taint the golden goose. They’ve taken away the special feeling that a 3D movie is an event and done so out of pure greed,” Leonard Maltin, former “Entertainment Tonight” film critic and film historian, told TheWrap.

Ginning up the excitement over the latest 3D release might require some heavy pruning by studios. Not everything, studio executives and theater owners say, needs to be released in the format.

“It costs too much money not to weigh if putting this film in 3D will get people to spend that money. The truth is there are very few movies where you can say, ‘Yes this will be qualitatively different in 3D and worth the higher ticket price,” a studio marketing executive told TheWrap.

That’s why Spielberg, Scorsese, Jackson and the rest of the film legends are so important.

Not only do their names above the title command attention, making a movie they direct an event in and of itself, but they bring with them the skill and the sensibility to make 3D a format that enhances a movie, not just inflates ticket prices. People want to see a 3D film from this bunch. 

“I hope they don’t disdain it. I hope they embrace it and enjoy it and give us a pleasurable and stimulating experience. I hope they don’t do a subtle use of 3D, because a subtle use of 3D is just another way of saying 2D,” Maltin told TheWrap.