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In 3D: Money grab or more than a fad?

IMAX Theater general manager Steve Hunt with 3D glasses at Broadway at the Beach. Photo by Steve Jessmore sjessmore@thesunnews.com
IMAX Theater general manager Steve Hunt with 3D glasses at Broadway at the Beach. Photo by Steve Jessmore sjessmore@thesunnews.com The Sun News

In Hollywood, 3-D is not a new concept. Many remember the old school paper frames with a red lens for one eye and a blue one for the other. The trend came and went through the years, offering to engage movie patrons with fare designed to jump out at you - be it a clenching fist, a sword, flying bats, airplanes or missiles - an experience that sometimes caused folks to duck or dodge as images appeared to leap from the screen. And in "Back to the Future," one of antagonist Biff Tannen's sidekicks, nicknamed 3-D, sported those retro frames constantly while in pursuit of the elusive Marty McFly - a de facto tribute to the golden age of 3-D by director Robert Zemeckis.

But this is not your father's 3-D anymore. Although many notable 3-D films have come before and since, James Cameron's "Avatar," the highest-grossing motion picture of all time, has forever raised the bar on this cinematic process, ushering in a land grab of mammoth proportions by studio execs hoping to hitch their (money) wagons to that star by hook and by crook. And according to a report published by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, box office earnings on 3-D showings alone have skyrocketed from roughly $92 million in 2006 to $2.2 billion in 2010 - and 12 of the top 25 films of 2010 were released with 3-D versions.

The next big 3-D film experiment, Disney's "Mars Needs Moms!" is set for theatrical release on Friday. There will also be an IMAX version available, but IMAX 3-D at Broadway at the Beach couldn't confirm it will be carrying the title in Myrtle Beach at press time.

How do Grand Strand theaters stack up against national 3-D attendance averages? The 2010 MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics state that 21 percent of all North American box office receipts came from 3-D fare in 2010. Are we on par with this trend?

"It's consistent with the national response to 3-D,'' says Bruce Frank, President/CEO of Frank Entertainment which operates Rivertowne 12 in Conway and Coastal 10 in Shallotte, N.C. "A lot of that is skewed by big cities. Myrtle Beach does not operate like New York City - for lack of a better word. It's good and bad - but in New York - if they are charging $5 for a 3-D upcharge - that (will be) significantly less in Myrtle Beach - which is in the $2.50-$3.50 range. When you have a 50 percent premium on top of the 3-D film, of course that's going to skew the big cities. But as far as attendance on the percentage basis - which is how we track - we track against national attendance. So we track the same information as everybody else in seeing that 3-D is definitely something the public does want to see."

So we're going to see more of the more expensive films you have to don goofy glasses to enjoy?

"Look at this season - from May 6 - there are 16 summer films in 3-D," says Frank.

And if you think this feeding frenzy is limited to the big screen, think again. The 3-D craze is heating up on the home entertainment and gaming fronts as well, with this month's release of Nintendo's 3-DS. And inroads are being made in the tech sector that might at some point eliminate the need for 3-D glasses of any sort.

But for now there are glasses - in fact different types for different versions of 3-D exhibition - most notably IMAX, Real D and Dolby Digital 3-D. And there's a potential snag here: 3-D viewing makes some people nauseous or gives them headaches - and others simply don't like to wear the glasses at all.

But Weekly Surge put on the glasses - and we took a look around the 3-D landscape. What we discovered was a cross section of diverse opinion as well as some common threads about where all of this is going.

Dim the house lights.

IT'S ALL ABOUT IMMERSION

Steve Hunt, General Manager at IMAX 3-D in Myrtle Beach [www.imax3dmyrtlebeach.com], believes the driving force behind the latest 3-D craze is a concept called immersion, which can potentially augment and transcend even the 3-D experience.

Such immersion is forefront at the 400-seat IMAX 3-D Theatre, which boasts what its Web site calls "steeply tiered seating decks" and a screen measuring 60 feet by 83 feet - a whopping six stories tall and designed with "a slight curvature that enables the images it carries to fill viewers' peripheral vision." Couple this wide field of vision with extra large 3-D glasses and you can understand what Hunt means when he says that a viewer feels part of the larger image. "No matter where you look or turn your head, you are still within the confines of the picture," he says.

Hunt says he has gotten feedback from people who saw the IMAX 3-D version of "Avatar," contending that they walked out a little bit tired and didn't know why until they thought about it. "They said 'my head was moving all of the time - I was looking down, around - because there was too much to look at. I couldn't just sit back and take it all in without my eyes moving.' I think people to some degree like that because it's more like real life. As you move through the environment, your eyes move around," he says. "So you've got this feeling that there's more than you could possibly take in, and that's kind of fun." According to Hunt, this is not what happens when viewing a regular - or flat - film or watching television at home. "Even with a fairly large TV - you sit 15 feet back and you kind of lock your gaze."

The large-format cinema house enjoyed success with "Avatar" in 3-D even though the theater picked it up three months after the standard theatrical release, a fact that initially concerned Hunt. "We figured that this might be a real problem and that no one was going to show up," he says. "But we were selling out. It's the flick that we could not kill. We moved it from timeslot to timeslot - and people showed up at 11 a.m. to see that film sometimes."

3-D PUTS BUTTS IN SEATS

Meanwhile, Duane Farmer, General Manager at Grand 14 Cinemas at The Market Common [www.stonetheatres.com], contends that Hollywood is doing anything it can to put people into movie theater seats, and this includes fueling the fire of the 3-D craze. "When I was young, technology advanced at a much slower pace," he says. "Because technology is advancing so fast now, you have to have something new every two minutes to keep people interested - and Hollywood wants whatever is going to get them into the seats."

This means a major push by Hollywood to fill theaters - 3-D or not?

"That's it. The more people talk about something, the more others get curious about it - and the next thing you know, they're coming to see a movie. You can tell that's the goal Hollywood is aiming for because they are talking about releasing so many movies in 3-D," he says. "George Lucas says he's going to redo 'Star Wars' in 3-D and they're talking about redoing 'Raiders of the Lost Ark in 3-D.' The main reason they are doing all of this is because they want to continue to keep people coming to the theater. That's what it's all about."

Lucas is doing more than talking. "Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace" is slated for 3-D theatrical release in February 2012.

Farmer says he can appreciate the novelty of a 3-D offering, but he can do without the old-school gimmickry. "I enjoyed 'Tron: Legacy' and 'Avatar' because they had depth and it was more about the environment. It wasn't so much the things flying at you and it was more like you were in the movie." Another nod to the immersion concept. "It's not so much about flying arrows and bullets anymore, but some still use it. 'Drive Angry' just came out, and an axe comes flying at you, but sometimes they go for that novelty when they do a throwback movie - and 'Drive Angry' is a throwback to the 1970s [3-D style]."

As president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Brent Simon has his finger on the Hollywood pulse. We asked him what he thought about this craze.

"My feelings on 3-D are conflicted," he says. "A couple of big name critics - Roger Ebert most notably - have come out and taken a swing at it," he says. "I don't think it's just a fad. The 3-D that we're seeing now is light years different from the 3-D in the 1980s or all of those schlock films that played around with it in the 1950s. But the problem is that Hollywood is famous for learning the wrong lessons."

Simon, who also maintains a film review Web site [www.shareddarkness.com] and does film reviews for Screen International, says Hollywood is not particularly adept at pursuing or cultivating newer generations of film fans. "They view themselves as being in competition with video games and comic books - and so their idea of how to win that competition is not to make a better or interesting product but to co-opt those fans."

He is quick to add that his intent is not to slag comic books or video games because he understands their far-reaching appeal - but these alone might not have the ingredients to necessarily make a good movie. "I think that they are chasing short money because they are trying to make these films that are based on existent properties - and then using 3-D as an add-on bonus."

In this economy, consumers likely pay close attention to every entertainment dollar. "We might be familiar with a $12 (movie) ticket in Los Angeles, but in a lot of other places, that's crazy. You can still get in for like $8 at night. So the ability to slap a couple of extra bucks on a 3-D or an IMAX ticket and pump those grosses up, it looks great to the bottom line. Suddenly, 'Alice In Wonderland' is making all of this money." Simon's beef seems to be more about films that were converted to 3-D after the fact - a process called post conversion. "'Alice in Wonderland' is an example of a film that was really a sort-of crass, unimaginative use of 3-D. 'Clash of the Titans' also comes to mind because I hated them both. They were shot in 2-D and went back and lacquered on the 3-D as an afterthought."

Simon likens studio heads to adolescents when it comes to 3-D. "They have dollar signs in their eyes, and this is like hormonal lust," he says.

To be sure, demanding a premium to watch a 3-D process that was added to a film as an afterthought might not be forward-thinking, considering that getting in to these films in 3-D costs as much as a ticket for "Avatar," which was shot on specially-designed cameras with a technology proprietary to director James Cameron, who helped in the co-development of the Pace/Cameron Fusion System.

Cameron, from the pinnacle of his ivory tower, has blasted Hollywood for its mediocrity. In a recent interview with Josh Horowitz on MTV's Rough Cut, he had this to say:

"There's an evolution, and people are starting to not accept inferior forms, which is good. But it's typical of Hollywood to get it wrong.We do a film that's natively authored in 3-D -- it's shot in 3-D. So they assume from the success of that, that they can just turn movies into 3-D in eight weeks. You know, just throw a switch on 3-D and that's going to work somehow. If you want to make a movie in 3-D, make the movie in 3-D. It should be a filmmaker-driven process and not a studio-driven process."

Simon elaborates: "You have someone like James Cameron who ruminated on 3-D for years - and it was baked into the cake. With some of these other movies, it's not part of the creative process or the visual scheme of the movie. When it's not an integral part of building the look and feel of the film, to me it's useless."

But he does not routinely pan all 3-D offerings outright. "Movies like 'Step Up 3-D' used the process in an imaginative way, relatively speaking - and 'Jackass 3-D' - you take a series like that, and they do some disgusting and amazing things, like 'wow, I really wish I hadn't seen that' - but it was pretty amazing."

IMAX's Hunt was taken with Avatar's subtle 3-D process.

"What's interesting about 'Avatar' was that it was not very aggressive 3-D," he says. "It was very passive 3-D - more just immersive - and there was definition to it if you think back on the film. I think [Cameron] was smart and knew what he was doing. He made a very comfortable 3-D film that sometimes felt like it wasn't even 3-D."

TECHNOLOGY & BUDDING AUTEURISM

Tracy Johnson, Entertainment Technology educator at the Academy For the Arts, Science & Technology in Myrtle Beach [aast.horrycountyschools.net], says that while 3-D might not be something you would want to watch every day, the technology itself has come a long way.

"With the 3-D imaging and the equipment they are using in film, I think people are starting to say 'this is cool,'" he says. "Because of where we are with the technology, it enables the visual imaging to start to become really pleasing. When you get to that point, I can see it kind of spreading through a lot of things." He adds that much of this boom has to do with the gaming industry as well, citing the imminent U.S. arrival of the Nintendo 3-DS on March 27.

Are his students buzzing about 3-D fare?

"To some degree. Some of my students think it's fantastic, and then others are kind of like me in a way. I have gotten to the point where I don't care if I see another 3-D film again. They are kind of over it."

While Johnson understands what the money grab is all about, he feels the timing isn't right in this economy. With a standard evening adult movie ticket on the Grand Strand hovering between $8 and $8.50 and 3-D surcharges between $2.50 and $3, this can add up quickly, especially for movie buffs.

"They aren't thinking that these are hard times for everybody and not the best time to be charging people more money for a movie just because you decide that you are going to put in 3-D - when it wasn't even intended to be that way."

But surely there are some budding auteurs at the Academy who would be interested in using 3-D in their video projects?

"I looked at a couple of things," he says. "They have a new consumer model 3-D camera out there. It was right around $1,000, which is low for a camera that can shoot in HD and 3-D. But then I started looking at the other end and the only way you can view it is on a 3-D television. There were other little catches as well."

Although his students don't presently shoot video in 3-D, there are certain tricks to get a similar effect. "You can shoot using two cameras set up at particular distances - one is set back a little. You can do things like this to produce something that creates a three dimensional look."

But Johnson is more about focusing on fundamentals such as shot composition, lighting and proper camera movement. "And for the students who are doing this perfectly, we're moving up to special effects."

But those 3-D special effects have some filmgoers complaining about dizziness and/or headaches while watching 3-D fare - definitely not intended components of the immersion process. For Hunt at IMAX, this does not seem to be a big issue.

"Sure, a small percentage of people will have a problem with motion sickness or dizziness," he says. "It's pretty rare because the glasses fit over prescription glasses - but it's like with people who get airsickness - there's not much you can do about it. I tell people that that if they start to feel weird, just close your eyes for a couple of minutes and you will probably be OK." He adds that since there is no additional stimulus, like on a roller coaster, the dizzy viewer will be able to relax.

Farmer at Grand 14 Cinemas says that the brain was not designed for such continuous refocusing. "For some people, the headache stems from their eye muscles constantly trying to adjust." Furthermore, Farmer says this might be especially true for younger viewers, based on reading he has done on the subject. "Some say that children six years and younger should not watch 3-D because their eye muscles are not fully developed yet." And in contrast to Hunt's comments, Farmer sees potential problems with light reflecting off prescription glasses, at least in his multiplex. "People would love for it to be totally dark, but for safety issues we can't do that - so the house lights above you might reflect on your glasses."

ON THE HOME FRONT

Best Buy Myrtle Beach General Manager Stan Kilp feels that 3-D technology in film, television and gaming are like fingers on the same hand. And while there is an implication that all televisions might soon be 3-D capable, this is still a bit further down the road.

"Capable, yes - but the question is at what level? It's evolving and growing. We were just waiting for the technology. Look at it this way: On my phone, I can play video games - I can send messages and can even watch DirecTV on this thing," he says. "The same thing happens with television. You have Internet built into certain TVs - you have Google built into some. Once the technology can support the ability of what people want, nobody's going to walk away and say they don't want 3-D. It's just going to keep changing."

All well and good, but what 3-D gear would we need from a retailer like Best Buy if we walked in today with a blank check?

"It's pretty simple," says Kilp. "You need an HDTV 3-D television and you will need the glasses. The second thing is a 3-D source, which is either going to be a 3-D Blu-ray player or a 3-D package directly from Time Warner or DirecTV." A casual glance at the Best Buy Web site [www.bestbuy.com] made it apparent that you could easily spend more than $2,000 getting set up with a 3-D capable TV and a Blu-ray player.

Meanwhile, in the world of gaming, the Nintendo 3-DS is a far cry from its clunky Virtual Boy from the early 1990s. "You are going to start seeing the first technology with the 3-DS - full 3-D without glasses [$250], but to get consumer pricing for most of the other emerging technology is not even close yet."

Kilp also cited "Gran Turismo 5" - a 3-D offering for the Sony Playstation 3. "It's a blast. If you have it hooked up to a 3-D TV with the glasses, you are racing in 3-D."

Dan Santelle, VP of Programming and Products at Time Warner Cable, also helped us get our heads around what is fueling the 3-D fire.

"I think it's like everything else in the world of technology," he says. "If it's new, it's cool. But what generally makes a difference is whether or not it really adds value - and that will be the difference in whether this sort of works long term, aside from other factors like price and whether the content comes along."

Santelle says that the 3-D effect that is being created with today's digital technology is a much better version than its analog predecessor. "And it's accessible because you can buy a television today with 3-D capability with roughly a $200 premium [meaning $200 extra for the 3-D option] - and that's coming down more and more for 46-inch and bigger televisions." And as prices drop on standard HDTVs anyway, this premium might be considered almost negligible to some consumers.

And while Santelle reiterates that the content is something that needs to come along, which was also true for HD, Time Warner [www.timewarnercable.com] offers three viewing options for 3-D on the Grand Strand.

"We had a number of events that we carry for free to customers that have the proper equipment - meaning a 3-D capable television set with a HDMI connection as well as the right type of compatible set-top converter, which in our world is frankly what most people would have already." This content included the 2010 Masters Tournament and the NASCAR Coke Zero 400. "For that event we had two channels of 3-D [seen on channels 1333 and 1334 across the Carolinas].

The second option is a subscription to Time Warner 3-D Pass [$10.95 monthly]. "This is effectively a tier featuring ESPN 3-D, which just went 24/7 on Feb. 14." He adds that the content on this network is what ESPN is producing in 3-D only, such as the X Games.

"Hopefully soon [this tier] will include more services beyond ESPN 3-D," he says. "There aren't a lot of them out there today, but they are developing.

Time Warner's third 3-D source is in the realm of Video on Demand, or VOD. "If you tune to channel position 1001 - the HD version of Movies on Demand - within that menu is a 3-D tab that displays the movies we have available on 3-D - and there are usually about a dozen at any given time. So those are the $4.99 rental fee if you will, just like Movies on Demand and just like an HD movie would be."

But will 3-D be forever relegated to sheer novelty or will this be embraced as the next big thing?

"There is probably a lot of pontificating about where this technology is going," he says. "I think it's here to stay and that it's more than a fad. As long as the content keeps getting developed and there's more and more of it available and the price of the technology keeps coming down - and you can probably be sure that it will."

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