In the aftermath of Avatar’s release, studios suddenly tried to jump aboard the 3D bandwagon whether ready or not – and Clash Of The Titans went first.
Nothing seems to cheer up huge movie studios more than when they find a new pot of gold. In the 2000s, it was DVD, a revolution that led to an enormous growth in home entertainment revenues until the bubble started to burst around 2006.
More recently, it was the unlocking of worldwide box office, in particular the lucrative returns that could be made from a full release in China. So willing were studios to help themselves to some of this that films either shot partly in China or shoehorned in – infamously in the case of Iron Man 3 – an extra sequence with a prominent Chinese actor. That bubble hasn’t quite burst yet, but Hollywood is of course having a damn good go at pricking it.
Yet the template act of self-destruction in recent years has surely been the rush to bathe in the waters of 3D.
This particular landrush was kickstarted by the jawdropping grosses generated by James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar.
Whilst the film doesn’t seem to generate the affection longer term of other Cameron sci-fi films such as Aliens and The Terminator, Avatar's $2.7bn worldwide gross remains unprecedented for a movie with no ties at that stage to a franchise.
Furthermore, Cameron – and it’s easy to overlook this – absolutely invested in the film’s 3D. Cinemas upgraded their equipment at no little expensive off the back of it, and were rewarded with over half of Avatar’s first run of ticket sales coming with a 3D premium. It added up to a lot of money, even before the charge for 3D glasses was factored in.
Time may have dimmed the initial reaction to Avatar somewhat, but it’s worth bearing in mind it was an absolute sensation. No film had done the business this movie was doing, nor bringing with such a change in exhibition at the same time.
Whilst in the run up to the film’s release many in the industry were cautious about its chances – and certainly not willing to pile chips on 3D becoming the next big thing – within weeks of its release everything changed. And the first (although far from the last) movie to be in the firing line was director Louis Leterrier’s new take on Clash Of The Titans.
Notwithstanding the fact that Titans were going to Clash, as the cunning tagline told us, the film was wrapped up and deep in post-production once Avatar was released. Leterrier and his team were aiming for a release date of March 26th 2010 for the movie, and were set to comfortably hit it.
But then Avatar happened, and Warner Bros spied an opportunity.
Having invested $125m in the film just for the negative, the studio saw a chance to bring in some extra cash. Thus, at the end of January 2010 an announcement came out that Warner Bros was ordering post-production bolt-ons for a quartet of its releases that year. They were November’s Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part One (for which the theatrical 3D would ultimately be abandoned), September’s Guardians Of Ga’Hoole (remember that?!), July’s Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore and Clash Of The Titans. So tight was the turnaround going to be on the latter, with around two months in total to complete the work, that the release date of Clash was pushed back by a week. It was that important to Warner Bros.
This, then, was the start of the post-production bolt-on.
Whilst Avatar’s 3D was planned from the start and the film designed with that in mind, this one absolutely wasn’t. Ironically, Letterier had raised 3D much earlier in production but Warner Bros had knocked the idea on the head. Now, the studio leaned on Letterier, and he reluctantly agreed. The work was outsourced to the Mumbai-based postproduction firm Prime Focus to go through the film and do what it could.
It used a process call View-D, and at the time, The Hollywood Reporter shared an insight into how it was done. The “Prime Focus’ View-D conversion process combines proprietary automated software with manual work that reflects filmmakers’ creative decisions”, it reported. Out then came the party line: “in the case of Titans, helmer Louis Leterrier was closely involved in setting the creative direction. Bond said Prime Focus charges $50,000-$100,000 per minute of material”.
The film clocks in at 108 minutes with credits. So let’s say at the cheapest, the whole exercise cost Warner Bros a cool $5m.
The results were not impressive. It’s often forgotten that alongside Clash Of The Titans, Disney was doing the same with Tim Burton’s live action Alice In Wonderland film, also released around the same time. Whilst the results on that one would hardly be earth-shattering, the 3D work on Clash Of The Titans in particular just hung there on the screen, sobbing.
It looked like what it was: a quick cash grab. Ironically, not a cheap one.
And, to be fair, it worked. Appreciating it took a hatchet to a burgeoning golden goose, Warner Bros was rewarded with a film that grossed nearly half a billion dollars, of which half the tickets again came from 3D (more than covering the cost of the bolt-on, and putting a fair amount of extra change in the coffers). There was clear audience enthusiasm for the format, but it was rapidly becoming clear that not all 3D was created equal. At all.
As Letterier would admit to Slashfilm a few years later, “it was famously rushed and famously horrible. It was absolutely horrible, the 3D. Nothing was working, it was just a gimmick to steal money from the audience. I’m a good boy and I rolled with the punches and everything, but it’s not my movie”.
The financial successes though – Alice In Wonderland grossed over $1bn worldwide around the same time – meant the 3D bolt-ons kept on coming. Everything from The Green Hornet to Marvel movies and Dolphin Tale to The Three Musketeers were given 3D clothes.
Some films – Life Of Pi and Hugo, notably, and an assortment of animated titles – still did things the proper way. But audiences were hardly given help in the various films’ promotions in determining what was a decent 3D job and what was bobbins slapped on late in the day.
The bottom line: confidence in 3D started to fall apart really rather quickly. As Jeffrey Katzenberg, then heading up DreamWorks Animation would lament, “we blew it” when it came to 3D. “It was a game-changing opportunity for the industry… when we gave them an exceptional film that was artistic and creative and celebrated, people were happy. … Then others came along and took the low road and gimmickized it. Instantly we lost good will”.
In fairness to DreamWorks, it put in a shift. I remember sitting through How To Train Your Dragon and being genuinely impressed by the 3D in the final act. Furthermore, films occasionally came along – Gravity the obvious example – that really demonstrated what could be done.
Yet by the time Gravity popped up in 2013, the decline was long apparent. By 2011, no film’s ticket sales for 3D were above 50% anymore, in spite of Hollywood releasing over 45 titles – including re-releases – in the format in that year alone. Plans to re-release all of the Star Wars movies in 3D died a quiet death with just The Phantom Menace getting a fresh outing, and the number of 3D prints ordered for big new releases started to be reduced. 2D was looking really rather satisfying.
Now? 3D ticket sales accounted for 15% of box office market share in America in 2019. That was powered by Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame – Marvel movies have continued to support 3D – but can’t hide the fact that there was a continued decline.
Obviously box office figures of 2020 will be what could kindly be described as an anomaly, but with the 3D Blu-ray format all but gone too, the whole thing has become a fad that faded. And the signs of just where it was going wrong were right there with that Clash Of The Titans experiment.
There’s one hope on the horizon, of course: James Cameron is currently making a gaggle of Avatar sequels, that’ll all be in 3D. Amongst the experiments teased is a 3D take that doesn’t involve having to perch extra eyewear on the end of your nose. The fear though is that even if Cameron manages to pull this off again, it’s the bandwagon-hopping that’ll undercut his work.
Unless, rarely, Hollywood has actually learned its lesson this time…
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