With over a billion dollars of 3D screening tickets for Avatar: The Way Of Water sold, Hollywood has a fresh chance with 3D – but it’s approaching it with caution.
The law of a headline with a question mark at the end of it is that almost certainly, the answer the question being posed is no. Spoiler: that’s not the case here. Not entirely at least.
One of the stories in the midst of the remarkable success enjoyed by James Cameron’s latest juggernaut Avatar: The Way Of Water was that it brought 3D back – again – to UK cinemas. Not that 3D had entirely disappeared, but certainly the golden goose had long been slayed in the 2010s by film after film presenting us with shoddy 3D bolt-on work. Increasingly, and unsurprisingly, audiences began more and more seeking out showings of films that weren’t in 3D. Sales of 3D televisions began to fall. The 3D Blu-ray format appeared to all but disappear.
3D was seemingly gone, or at best had become a tiny niche.
It got to the point where, when I toddled along to my local Odeon to watch the latest Avatar, the staff weren’t entirely set up for the 3D part of the showing. Half the audience weren’t given the requisite 3D glasses and weren’t even aware it was a 3D showing they were sat in. At least not until the notice informing them appeared on the screen, and off they ran to get the glasses they hadn’t been given on the way in.
But even the glasses themselves had been relegated. A decade ago, cinemas were charging a quid or two for these things, on top of the premium price that was being added for a 3D showing. None of those shenanigans this time. The price of the 3D screening was equivalent to other 2D performances of films on the same site, and the glasses were sat in a box, and it was a case of help yourself. Next to the pile of posters for an upcoming kids film. May as well grab one of those as well, right?
It’s been a dramatic fall from grace for the format, one that was very clearly squandered by Hollywood on its latest cyclical resurgence at the end of the 2000s. But still: over a billion dollars of Avatar: The Way Of Water’s box office business was for 3D tickets, it turns out. Granted, the film grossed $2.3bn before it finally washed up on home release, but that’s the kind of 3D numbers Hollywood hasn’t seen since, well, Avatar really.
It’s not like there weren’t other options, too. This wasn’t a film that was blanket released in 3D. There were 2D screenings as well. And many people opted for the 3D option, by choice.
With reasonable reason too. If someone’s not going to shortchange you on a 3D movie, it’s James Cameron. He and his team were always going to put in a shift on the technical side, and duly did Not since arguably Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has a live action movie used 3D well, and justified the format.
Interestingly, after a relative dearth of 3D releases over the past few years, there’s now a few more options available at UK multiplexes. The Super Mario Bros movie is currently the biggest film of 2023 in terms of financial takings, and around one in five screenings at my local are in 3D. Listings are popping up for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 in 3D as well (as per two of last year’s Marvel movies), whilst earlier this year Scream VI got a 3D fitting too (although that was less well received).
It’s hardly a torrent of options, certainly, but it does feel like a nudge or two forward after a barren couple of years. What’s interesting too is there’s a degree of caution involved. In the aftermath of the first Avatar going nuclear at the box office back in 2009, studios scrambled to add piss-poor 3D post-production bolt-ons to their films, most notably the remake of Clash Of The Titans. It worked in the short term financially, but that aforementioned golden goose wasn’t so much killed as nuked from orbit, the only way to be sure.
This time around, bets are being hedged, and there’s a sense of moderation. Certainly, nobody is getting carried away this time around. The trend is still very much towards big blockbusters not arriving in 3D this year, with IMAX the clearly-preferred (although not mutually exclusive) premium format. That, and, well, Cocaine Bear in 4DX was tempting too. Furthermore, it’s the same on home formats. The 3D Blu-ray physical disc format is dormant, and even the digital download edition of Avatar: The Way Of Water that was released this month was only offered in a 2D flavour. That’s not to say that a 3D home version won’t appear at some point, it’s just notable that it’s not arrived or even been announced yet (although Disney is being coy anyway on when the physical discs will be landing anyway).
Perhaps one of two things needs to happen for 3D to fully resurge, possibly both: a mooted variant of the technology that takes the 3D glasses themselves out of the equation, or option two, simply the passing of a lot more time.
Too many of us have fresh in our memories the worst excesses of the last 3D era, and perhaps that’s why Hollywood tends to look back towards it every few decades, leaving a decent gap in the midst. That way, it can be a novelty again. For many too, the wearing of not usually very comfortable 3D specs for what’s supposed to be a relaxing couple of hours has long been an issue as well: the technological advance that makes them optional might just be the next tipping point.
Yet also, don’t fully write off the current 3D era. Just because there’s not been the same kind of land rush this time around, the numbers are still worthy of at least sticking on the agenda, albeit perhaps under Any Other Business rather than somewhere near the top. Over $1bn of 3D tickets for one film isn’t a trend, but it’s also – obviously – a hell of a lot of money. It’s not enough to stop my local multiplex just leaving the glasses in a box rather than handing them out, and perhaps the mild groans when audience at said local realised they had to go and fetch a pair is part of the problem.
Thing is though, for 3D to find a way back into the conversation in earnest, it needs advocates. Once again, the biggest at the moment remains James Cameron – and he just happens to have a new film out (again) the year after next. Don’t expect too many 3D releases between then and now – but don’t be surprised to see most studios still keeping a tentative foot ín the game. Maybe we are getting a tiny resurgence after all…
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