After Avatar: 3D, Cinematic Revolution, and Digital Projection

Like Jason Sperb (who chaired my panel), Bob Rehak (who also presented on digital effects and related issues), and Steven Shaviro (whose paper on “post-continuity” cinema I missed at the conference) I’ve decided to post a draft version of the paper I presented at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (you can find it below the fold). I ended up revising the conclusion considerably while at the conference, so I’ll quickly add that there were two or three different issues that I was trying to bring together in the article, concerns that will be addressed more fully in a couple of book chapters that are currently in the process of being published.

As audiences appear to have become increasingly disillusioned with theatrical 3D, I’ve found myself becoming more deeply interested in some of the ways in which 3D is being promoted both as a theatrical and a home format.  To some extent, that promotion has taken form through the use of auteurs to promote 3D as an idealized form for cinematic storytelling, a practice that can best be identified with Martin Scorsese’s promotion of Hugo. But there are also a number of other contradictions and challenges, most notably the news that some studios have announced that they intend to stop paying for the 3D glasses used in theaters in the United States (it’s worth noting that many European moviegoers already have to pay for 3D glasses, either through rentl or purchase). Finally, it appears that Cameron and others are now promoting the idea that 3D shouldn’t be a spectacular form anymore but that it should be normalized. Cameron, in particular, argued that once 3D TV is widely available, 2D movies will virtually cease to exist. Of course, I am far from convinced about Cameron’s arguments, but I think I’m more intrigued by the degree to which he and other 3D supporters continue to promote narratives of technological inevitability.

This draft is a bit rough and meant to provoke some questions rather than answering them, so please take it in that spirit. I’m hoping to have an SCMS wrap post soon that ties together some of the panels focused on media industries issues, but that may take a few days.

This paper is an attempt to make sense of how 3D fits into wider conflicts about how movies are distributed and exhibited, questions that tap into some of the central issues of how film as a medium is defined. While there has been quite a bit of discussion of the aesthetics of 3D, the format is also caught up in industrial debates about digital projection, distribution windows, and especially new perceptions of the moviegoer. These discussions are shaped by range of industry reports and trade summits, in which industry leaders work to theorize how (or if) 3D filmmaking will persist. John Caldwell, in particular, has been attentive to the ways in which the movie industry engages in an ongoing process of self-theorization, and in this context, I am interested in exploring how 3D has been promoted, both to consumers through DVD extras and other “supplemental” materials and through discourse that seems directed toward others in the movie industry. Underlying many of these discussions is the idea of technological progress, the idea that 3D is an inevitable evolution of the medium of movies—I hesitate to use the word film when no film is involved—one that will eventually become the norm for movies. Further, these debates build upon the depiction of an active consumer/moviegoer who seeks to be actively engaged rather than merely passively consuming movies. Finally, the industrial implications of 3D have been the subject of intense debate, with many critics of the format using box office data to suggest that consumers are rejecting it. While some data seem to confirm that audiences are rejecting 3D, it seems clear that studios are still deeply invested in sustaining the format. Thus, rather than speculating about the profitability of 3D, I’m more interested in looking at how 3D fits into these new modes of distribution.

When it was reintroduced in 2009, 3D was depicted as a revolution in filmmaking or par with the introduction of color or sound. Two years after this initial hype has faded, 3D supporters such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron continue to promote the idea that 3D has been transformative. James Cameron, for example, asserts that digital 3D is analogous to the introduction of color in Wizard of Oz, a connection that was made explicit in Avatar when pilot Trudy Chacon jokes after entering Pandora that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Both Cameron and Katzenberg depict opponents of 3D as being resistant to progress, arguing that rejecting the format is tantamount to rejecting “the greatest innovation in the movie industry in 75 years.” Thus, throughout the trade materials on 3D we get an ongoing celebration not merely of the visual appearance of 3D films but also the promotion of an ideology of technologically informed cinematic innovation. This is evident both in trade speeches and in DVD extras. As Charles Acland argues, the documentaries, deleted scenes, and other special features on the Avatar DVDs combine to promote 3D technologies, creating what he calls “a romance with a particular mode of cultural production defined by an engagement with new technological materials and processes.”

In fact, the theatrical release of Avatar was just one piece of a larger entertainment franchise, one that sought to do more than build a vast narrative world. In addition, Avatar was part of a larger project of promoting a utopian technological narrative, in which the experience of watching movies would be forever transformed, whether the viewer watched on a giant screen at her local IMAX theater or in the comforts of her home. In this sense, Avatar was more than an expansive textual commodity: it was also caught up in the discourses of revolutionizing movie watching. However, Avatar, whatever else it might be doing, it was, in fact, a valued entertainment commodity, one that could be marketed on the strength of its relationship to Cameron as a technological auteur capable of crafting the ideal conditions under which a movie could be watched. This discourse was underscored by Cameron’s arguments that audiences were seeking to upgrade their theatrical experience, opting for the “best” settings in which to see the film. In a widely discussed speech to a technology forum in Seoul, Cameron argued that the 3D revival was “not just a fad but a revolution changing how the audience chooses to consume media and entertainment content.” Cameron went on to add that, “where they had a choice, the audience was selecting the best possible way to see the movie. And they saw 3D as the premium viewing experience.” It’s easy to dismiss such claims as mere hype, promotional discourse meant to attract audiences back into theaters. However, Cameron’s comments participate in an ongoing redefinition of media connoisseurship, one that is attentive not only to the quality of movies themselves but also to the quality of the technologies used to show the movie. Within media studies, Barbara Klinger has discussed how advertising for home theater systems sought to address this culture of connoisseurship, while Charles Acland has pointed out the ways in which movie audiences—contrary to a number of popular accounts—have developed a “platform consciousness.”

In addition, there has been an increasing effort to use cinematic auteurs to offer legitimacy to 3D storytelling. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for example, pointed out that 1970s film luminaries Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola have all made 3D films or have them in the works, and Scorsese’s Hugo can be seen as a narrative argument for 3D storytelling. Hugo basically revises the origin story of cinema, turning it into a special effects medium from its very origins. Although the film focuses on the pioneering contributions of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, Scorsese even turns the Lumiére brothers into special-effects filmmakers by restaging the mythic first screening of the train entering the station as a 3D film. In interviews about the making of Hugo, Scorsese has emphasized his childhood love of stereoscopic toys, aligning 3D filmmaking with a much longer history of optical effects.

At the same time, 3D and other similar innovations have been promoted as an addition to film providing it not only with a greater sense of realism or immersion but also as something that will provide a more interactive experience, one that more fully engages the movie consumer. In his discussion of Avatar, Cameron asserted that the use of 3D “activated” audiences, allowing movies to compete with interactive media. Similarly, Robert Rodriguez argued that he made Spy Kids 4 using both 3D and “Aromascope” scented cards because he had witnessed his own children seeking out more interactive forms of entertainment. Such claims, of course, build upon a relatively simplistic notion of active viewership. Is fumbling around in a dark theater (while also wearing darkened, polarized lenses) trying to scratch the fourth scent on a piece of cardboard really interactive? That being said, it’s worth noting that the discourses of critical theory and industrial self-promotion seem to overlap in some ways. For decades, critical theorists have sought to promote the idea of active audiences, and this terminology seems to inform public descriptions of watching 3D movies.
Despite these efforts to promote 3D as format, there is some evidence that the hype is not working. Kristin Thompson and others have used box office data to counteract industry arguments that the format is thriving. The statistic most commonly used to support this argument has been the claim that most Hollywood films now get a smaller percentage of their gross from 3D tickets than before. Thus, while 70% of the gross for Alice in Wonderland came from 3D ticket sales, only about 45% of Despicable Me’s box office was derived from 3D. Film industry journalist David Poland is even more blunt in his assessment, asserting that 3D has failed as a “marketing tool,” and adding that the most successful 3D films were all pre-sold franchises where the use of 3D was essentially irrelevant. Despite these cautions about the attractiveness of 3D as a format, studios appear to continue to be invested in using it for many of their tentpole movies.

Looking ahead, here are some factors that will continue to affect the ongoing place of 3D in the industry. First, one of the big trends appears to be the conversion of older classics into 3D. Of course, Cameron himself is working on the 3D conversion of Titanic, but one of the first test cases for conversion was Disney’s The Lion King, which made $94 million when it was re-released to theaters in September 2011. Other 3D re-releases have been less successful, with The Phantom Menace making a more modest $42 million during its February 2012 theatrical run. The success of The Lion King prompted Disney to announce that it would be re-releasing four more Disney classics in 3D, including Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc., the latter timed to be released just a few weeks before a planned prequel, Monster University in early 2013. To some extent, Disney’s re-release strategy is consistent with their business model of reintroducing movies theatrically every few years in order to appeal to new generations of parents wishing to share the movies with their children. But I think it’s fair to ask whether the success of these films is based on a desire to see them in 3D or whether audiences wanted to re-experience these films in 3D. While Cameron has asserted that a successful 3D conversion will make any film better, this raises a number of questions about what counts as the “primary” text of a film.

Second, studios are beginning to appear somewhat less reluctant to pay for the polarized 3D glasses used in theaters, with the hope of displacing that burden more directly onto theater owners and movie consumers. It’s worth noting that the CEO for RealD has reported that they manufacture 400 million pairs of 3D glasses annually, a statistic that illustrates not only a hidden financial cost of 3D but also illustrates the amount of waste required to make the format viable. Although the existing $2-4 surcharge arguably partially covers the cost of the glasses, Sony has announced that it will no longer cover these costs—estimated at about 50 cents per ticket sold—starting in May 2012. As of right now, this conflict remains unresolved, but it will be interesting to see if Sony holds firm, especially given that the studio has two high-profile 3D releases coming out this summer, Men in Black 3 and The Amazing Spiderman. Both of these films belong to pre-sold franchises; however, if audiences are expected to pay an additional cost for the glasses, they may opt to see the movie in 2D instead. It’s worth noting that there is already a rental model in place in other countries. For example, in many European countries, moviegoers may be expected to pay $2 to rent or $12 to purchase 3D glasses. The number of screens that are capable of showing 3D films continues to expand. In August 2010, 6,289 screens could show 3D. By August 2011, that number had essentially doubled to 12,738 screens.

Both Katzenberg and Cameron have argued that many of the “problems” associated with 3D will be fixed once the challenges of broadcasting in 3D are resolved. In fact, Cameron compared the emergence of 3D TV to the popularization of color television, arguing that once color TV gained widespread acceptance, “every” film that came out was in color. There continues to be some hope that sports will serve as a key “driver” for facilitating the acceptance of 3D TV, specifically through the use of 3D event screenings of the London Olympics in movie theaters; however, there is still some sense that consumers have been slow to adapt to 3D at home. In 2010, consumers only purchased 1.1 million 3D TV sets, and the Consumer Electronics Association estimated sales of just under 2 million in 2011, suggesting a relatively low rate of adoption. Part of the factor may be the continued challenges of requiring viewers to wear the glasses. Oddly, during Katznebreg’s keynote address at the most recent 3D summit, the interviewer complained about the “pejorative attached to the word, ‘glasses.’” But aside from the issues of comfort, there are some significant cost factors. The “active” lenses that Katzenberg prefers cost $150 a pair and are heavier and thicker than the polarized lenses used in theaters. Further, 3D sets that don’t require glasses remain prohibitively expensive for anyone other than early adopters. Finally, 3D TV faces the challenge of a lack of available content for home consumption. Once again, however, both Katzenberg and Cameron are involved in ideologies of progress, suggesting that they view 3D as inevitable, as part of an ongoing improvement of the film medium.

Although the original hype regarding 3D has faded considerably, it continues to play a vital role in defining perceptions of the movie industry. 3D fits neatly within the crisis narratives that seem to be a perpetual part of the movie industry. However, as revenues from DVD sales have declined in recent years, the studios are seeking new ways of creating value. In this sense, 3D fits neatly into a number of contemporary accounts of spectatorship. First, the promotion of 3D is inextricably tied to depictions of technological connoisseurship. Technological auteurs such as James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg promote 3D through discourses of technological innovation, comparing the format to past technological developments such as the introduction of color or sound. At the same time, 3D has been advertised as promoting more interactive and immersive experiences. To some extent, this represents a contradiction. On the one hand, audiences are more aware than ever of the technologies of production and exhibition, creating what Acland has described as a “platform consciousness.” On the other hand, 3D is meant to make movies more immersive, drawing us fully into the world of the film. This conflict informs some of the aesthetic uses of 3D. As Kristin Thompson pointed out, 3D films that use “flashy depth effects with things flying out at the audience” turn the format into an “obtrusive” distraction. However, if it’s used unobtrusively, then users are less likely to see it as adding value equivalent to the additional costs associated with 3D.


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