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Is the 3-D movie juggernaut losing momentum?


As recently as six months ago, movies in 3-D were touted as the salvation of the movie business. They offered an experience home theaters couldn’t duplicate, and theater owners, in turn, charged more for tickets.


But more dissident voices are being heard. Fans grumble that the $2 to $3 up charge is too expensive, the films are often dimly lit, the 3-D looks phony — or just plain bad. And filmmakers including “Star Trek” director J.J. Abrams and “Inception” director Christopher Nolan have groused about the push to convert to 3-D some films shot in 2-D.


Some Hollywood insiders speculate that interest in the format may have peaked with the huge success last Christmas of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Since then, ticket sales for 3-D films generally have trended downward as the number of 3-D films has increased.


“How to Train Your Dragon,” for example, received about 68 percent of its March opening from 3-D ticket sales, according to Wall Street research firm RTIG Research. Three months later, only 60 percent of the opening weekend for “Toy Story 3” was from 3-D — despite the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews.


“Step Up 3D,” the second sequel in a mildly successful franchise and the only one in 3-D, made just $15 million last weekend — the worst opening in the franchise’s history.


But does that spell trouble for 3-D versions of this winter’s “Harry Potter” sequel, Will Ferrell’s animated “Megamind” or Disney’s next “Narnia” movie? There’s a new 3-D movie opening nearly every week through the end of the year.


“No matter how it’s spun,” the entertainment website TheWrap.com proclaimed last week, “the data on the expected 3-D explosion just isn’t going in the right direction.”


Richard Greenfield, a film industry analyst with BTIG Research, was quoted saying that “the overall message isn’t that 3-D is a fad or that it’s going away, but I’m not sure we’re moving to a point where 50 percent of the box office is derived by 3-D ticket sales as some of the bulls currently believe.”


The article may have created some blowback in Hollywood’s executive suites. Asked this week by The Star to expand on his statement, Greenfield said “I’m not commenting. On anything.”


And then he hung up.


CHAINS ARE CONVERTING


Hollywood and theater operators, meanwhile, remain bullish on 3-D. About 60 3-D films are planned over the next two years, and chains continue to convert their theaters.


A spokesman for Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment Inc. said this week that his company would not comment on the financial performance of individual films. But the exhibition giant continues to convert screens to digital projection, an essential step in making theaters 3-D ready.


Another chain, Dickinson Theatres, also is adding more screens capable of showing 3-D films. “Some 3-D movies, like ‘Avatar,’ do really well,” said Ron Horton, Dickinson’s executive vice president for film and marketing. “Others don’t, but I still wouldn’t call them disappointments. Remember, this is all pretty new to us. We’re still creating our learning curve.”


Others are not so sure. Jerry Beck, writer and co-operator of the website cartoonresearch.com, suggests the studios have an ulterior motive. When theaters convert to digital projection, studios no longer will have to print individual films for each theater.


“I hate to say this because I’m a big fan of 3-D,” Beck said. “But, really, it’s all to save Hollywood a buck by not having to make and ship film prints. When every movie is delivered digitally, the studios will save billions.”


‘50s Flash In The Pan


Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin sees history repeating itself.


“In 1953 when the first 3-D craze erupted, Jack L. Warner made exactly the statements we’ve been hearing lately, predictions that in the future all films will be in 3-D,” Maltin said. “He even used that as the rationale to shut down Warner’s famous cartoon department. Six months later he decided he was wrong.”


By 1954 the 3-D fad was over. Audiences grew tired of the gimmick and the occasional headaches induced by the early 3-D technology. A handful of as-yet-unreleased films shot in the process—including the musical “Kiss Me Kate,” the Hitchcock thriller “Dial M for Murder” and the John Wayne Western “Hondo” — were shown only in standard 2-D.


Critics of today’ 3-D say that part of the problem is that some audiences have felt burned by recent releases — such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Clash of the Titans” and “The Last Airbender” — that were shot in 2-D but underwent a post-production transformation to 3-D. In the case of “Alice” the results were nondescript; in “Titans” and “Airbender” wretchedly bad.


“Phony faux 3-D films have soured the whole thing,” Beck said. Perhaps, but mediocre 3-D didn’t stop either film from achieving blockbuster status.


A more pressing issue may be one of cost. Audiences weighing the benefits of 3-D against the higher ticket price will become more selective, says cultural historian Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.


“3-D had its first explosion of euphoria with ‘Avatar,’” he said. “James Cameron is a visionary who lavished time and money on making that the best 3-D film ever. Other filmmakers haven’t yet caught up and audiences have noticed. Now that first act may be coming to a close.”


Nobody is predicting that 3-D will vanish. But studios probably will need to think twice about what films require the 3-D treatment.


“3-D is a special effect, and it’s one that costs extra money at every step of the process: in the filming, post-production and exhibition,” Hugo Award-winning writer John Scalzi recently wrote on AMCTV.com. “Producers are unlikely to want to add costs to a movie that won’t result in a commensurate boost to the box office.


“There’s no doubt that in the reasonably near future a major studio will make a very expensive movie in 3-D and that movie will fall flat on its three-dimensional face.”


In five years, Beck predicts, 3-D will be employed mostly for big “event” films: superhero comic-book movies, action pictures and, of course, animation.


“3-D will be reserved mostly for your big summer roller coaster rides,” Beck said.


But don’t expect the 3-D onslaught to end soon.


Industry giant AMC recently turned its busiest Kansas City megaplexes into 100 percent digital operations. And Dickinson’s Horton says his chain has plans for even more 3-D screens.


“At one point last month if your multiplex had only one 3-D screen you were missing out on 3-D product,” he said. “In my opinion theaters will need three or four 3-D screens ...”


And that isn’t counting the possibilities of “alternative content” such as live 3-D broadcasts of sports, concerts and theatrical events.


“I’ve seen a broadcast of 3-D football and it was phenomenal,” Horton said. “I would definitely consider a 3-D presentation of a Super Bowl or Final Four game in our theaters.”


3-D ... IS IT LOSING THE AUDIENCE?


“Avatar” set box office records, but subsequent 3-D movies have seen erosion in audience support. This year’s releases and their box office to date:


“Avatar” (Dec. 15): James Cameron’s space opus has earned $750 million in the U.S.—nearly 70 percent of that from 3-D presentations. An extended version returns to theaters Aug. 27.


“Alice in Wonderland” (March 4): Shot in 2-D, this Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration underwent a post-production conversion to 3-D. It looked OK. Domestic gross: $334 million.


“How to Train Your Dragon” (March 26): Good animation, great 3-D. U.S. earnings: $217 million.


“Clash of the Titans” (April 2): Another 2-D converted to “faux” 3-D ... but this time it looked terrible. $163 million.


“Shrek Forever After” (May 21): $236 million.


“Toy Story 3” (June 18): So good many said it didn’t need 3-D. $390 million.


“Despicable Me” (July 9): Clever movie, good 3-D animation. $190 million so far.


“The Last Airbender” (July 21): Another iffy 2-D to 3-D conversion. $127 million.


“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” (July 30): It’s earned $93 million, but only $7 million of that was from 3-D. Exhibitors say young children hate wearing 3-D glasses.


“Step Up 3D” (Aug. 6): Critics say the 3-D dance sequences made the movie. But with ticket sales of just $15 million it had the worst opening in the franchise’s history.

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