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It only took a century, but 3-D films have evolved from a curiosity to a film world obsession.


“In a not-too-distant future,” predicts Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, “big releases will be only released in 3-D.”


“This really is a revolution,” proclaims Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks Animation.


Geeky plastic glasses are suddenly Hollywood’s coolest accessory, but they may cause a loss of perspective. Instead of triggering a renaissance, 3-D may be the next wave of the effects-driven blockbuster mentality that followed in the wake of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”


If Zoradi’s “all 3-D all the time” vision arrives, the types of films that benefit most from 3-D — animation, fantasy and horror — could bulldoze grownup fare even further to the sidelines. It may become the new industry standard, but does it deserve to be? Would “The Godfather” or “Sideways” or “All About Eve” really be richer experiences in 3-D?


Enthusiasts call 3-D the third technical breakthrough, after sound and color, to fundamentally change the viewing experience. But 3-D mania has been around before — and around and around and around — without revolutionizing cinema.


By some counts the current wave is 3-D’s seventh revival since “The Power of Love” first required viewers to don red/green glasses in 1922. The format has cropped up sporadically ever since, generally in trashy vehicles like “Bwana Devil,” “House of Wax” and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein.”


Each time the novelty faded as it did for such fads as Cinerama and Smell-O-Vision.


Now the stakes have been raised exponentially. As “Avatar” director James Cameron predicted all along, 3-D has become a game-changer — at least economically, at least for the time being. Despite mixed reviews, Disney’s 3-D “Alice in Wonderland” has led the box office three weeks running. DreamWorks/Paramount’s 3-D “How to Train Your Dragon,” which opened Friday, is likely to dislodge it. With “Shrek Forever After,” “Toy Story 3” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” on the horizon, 2010 promises to be 3-D’s biggest year yet.


Films such as “Avatar” and Pixar’s “Up” proved that a mature use of 3-D can create a rich, immersive experience, but the stampede to the format is being driven by accounting.


While making a movie in 3-D adds about 15 percent to the film’s budget, it can be vastly more profitable. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers calculates that movies released in 3-D generate twice to three times the revenue of the same titles in 2-D — in some cases, as much as six times.


Most executives point to 3-D films, which command an extra $3 to $5 per ticket, as the prime contributor to 2009’s record ticket sales of $10.6 billion in the United States and Canada.


Last year 30 films grossed $100 million or more. Seven were in 3-D, earning $1.6 billion. Factor out the 3-D revenue from that handful of films, and Hollywood’s income would have taken a roller coaster plunge.


For studios, there’s another benefit to releasing 3-D films: The stereo images can’t be bootlegged by pirates with video cameras.


The boom is causing some headaches, however. As studios pump out more and more films in the fledgling format, they face an acute shortage of 3-D-capable theaters.


Counting “Avatar” as a holdover, there will be 22 3-D movies in theaters this year, up from 14 last year. With about 3,500 3-D screens in North America — less than 10 per cent of the total — there are not nearly enough to handle the coming glut.


Warner Bros.’ “Clash of the Titans” opens Friday, a week after “How to Train Your Dragon.” Meanwhile, Disney wants to keep “Alice” in theaters for several more weeks. Now factor in the rising tide of 3-D rock concerts and live sports broadcasts competing for those same scarce screens — next month CBS Sports will present the NCAA Final Four in 3-D in 100 theaters throughout the nation.


With millions at stake, film studios are arm-twisting owners to support their respective movies. The clash of Hollywood titans was Topic One among exhibition executives at the recent ShoWest industry convention in Las Vegas. Paramount warned theater owners with a 3-D-capable screen that unless they show “How to Train Your Dragon” in that format, the studio wouldn’t provide a standard print to show instead.


Following the money, theater owners nationwide have taken out $660 million in loans to double the number of digital 3-D screens to 7,000 by year’s end.


While studios and exhibitors are betting heavily on 3-D, it is not the Holy Grail of box office success. Just ask 3-D pioneer Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf”). His underperforming 3-D “A Christmas Carol” was not the stocking stuffer Disney expected; earlier this month, the studio pulled the plug on Zemeckis’ cost-intensive production company ImageMovers Digital.


The cool response to Dickens’ classic, a triumph of technology over storytelling that Zemeckis overloaded with thrill-ride effects, may say something about moviegoers’ rising expectations. Simply adding 3-D effects to a movie may not be enough to boost its performance. Cameron has been outspokenly critical of such films as “Clash of the Titans” that were made 3-D in postproduction, likening them to cardboard greeting card pop-ups.


A 3-D presentation has intrinsic limitations because of the special eyewear required for viewing. The polarized lenses reduce the brightness of the screen image significantly, and many theaters fail to dial up their projectors to compensate, resulting in images that are painfully dark. What’s more, wearing the glasses makes the film going experience more isolating. In a standard movie, you can turn your head toward your seatmate without the screen image going out of register. Audiences at 3-D movies tend to sit through films immobile, staring straight ahead, losing the communal satisfaction of being part of an audience.


A more pressing question is whether the novelty value of 3-D can be sustained in the face of an ever-expanding supply. In the format’s last heyday, a flood of B movies glutted the market and exhausted moviegoers’ appetite for the medium. By the time Alfred Hitchcock brought his 3-D “Dial M for Murder” to theaters in 1954, the fad was played out.


While Cameron and Tim Burton have had their hits, and Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are at work on their own 3-D projects, there is plenty of dubious fare in the year ahead. “Saw VII,” “Piranha 3-D,” “Step Up 3-D,” “Friday the 13th Part 2 in 3-D” and “Jackass 3-D” are climbing aboard the gravy train. Here’s hoping they don’t derail it.

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