Early 2010 felt like the 1950s all over again. No, cruising and poodle skirts did not come back, but the theater world became once again obsessed with 3-D technology. While it has failed to maintain a foothold over the years, this time around it seems that worldwide domination is entirely possible -- it may even enter your home.
It's definitely not just a fad now as movie studios,
TV networks and electronics makers invest more in it than ever before. The only question that remains is just how ubiquitous 3-D will be in our entertainment lives going forward.
This March, at ShoWest in Las Vegas, a flashy trade show pairing movie-theater owners with the big-studio peddlers, 3-D was pretty much all anybody talked about.
The 3-D format sparked the box office to a record $10.6 billion last year in the U.S. and Canada, accounting for 11 percent of overall ticket sales after tallying only about 2 percent in 2008.
And at ShoWest, not only were theater-chain operators trying to figure out how much to raise ticket prices, they were using the word "crisis" to describe the current shortage of 3-D screens.
"How many of you out there wish you had more screens for Avatar?" asked Joe Berchtold, a top executive for the film-business services giant, Technicolor, to a throng of hand-raising theater executives.
En masse, theater operators dug into lines of credit, either to pay for full digital upgrades (at a cost of over $100,000 per screen) or for temporary, lower-cost analog 3-D "bridge" solutions that would get them up and running pronto.
"We just ordered our new screens today," said Ken Hill, owner of Prime Cinemas, which has three locations in northern California, shortly after the meeting with Technicolor.
Meanwhile, on the home entertainment front, Panasonic announced that its initial U.S. shipment of $2,900, 50-inch, 3-D-capable plasma TVs had sold out in just a couple of days. Exactly how many TVs were in that shipment is unclear, but soon there will actually be 3-D content to play on these sets.
New generation, 3-D-capable Blu-ray players are already on the market, with discs to play on them set to roll out later in the spring. In the summer, several TV networks dedicated to 3-D are even set to emerge - most notably, ESPN will have an outlet that will cover the World Cup in the format.
So can it be true? After so many pushes at wide-scale entertainment-consumer adoption, is 3-D ready to take over both the movie theater and the living room at the same time? Answer: Bet on the former, but definitely hedge on the latter. That one still seems like a long shot.
Although stereoscopic projection technology had already been around for decades prior, the first real shot at getting 3-D established in theaters occurred in 1952, when United Artists successfully released Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil.
Shot in Natural Vision, the preferred 3D production
format of the day, and based on a true 19th-century story about man-eating lions terrorizing railway workers in Uganda - and marketed with the slogan "A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!" - the
film set in motion the initial wave of 3-D movies. That tide would include about sixty titles over the next several years, including Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder and John Wayne's
The original 3-D boom helped spark the theater industry following a severe post-World War II downturn during which ticket sales declined from 90 million in 1948 to just 40 million in 1951. But 3-D technology proved impractical for wide-range exhibition. Having two film reels play in perfect synchronization -one for the right eye, another for the left - proved difficult to pull off.
Misaligned projectors were causing many audience members to complain of headaches. And as the film reels wore out, it was difficult for projectionists to keep everything synched as they made repairs. Meanwhile, the special silver screens needed to make the projection bright enough were too small and had poor viewing angles.
With only minor improvements over the
years, 3-D lapped the shores of popularity, returning to the box office and then retreating back into oblivion several times. One notable resurfacing occurred in 1969 with the softcore film The
Stewardesses, thanks no doubt in part to the catchphrase: "See the lusty stewardesses leap from the screen onto your lap!" The movie cost $100,000 to make but grossed more than $27 million. (The
film managed to secure an R rating from the MPAA after several edits.)
Studio executives didn't seriously start talking about 3-D again until 2004, when limited rollouts of Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express and James Cameron's Aliens of the Deep proved that stereoscopic images - shot and projected digitally - actually made 3-D work reliably well amid wide deployment.
And, of course, it was Cameron's digital 3-D film Avatar - the highest grossing film ever, with nearly $2.7 billion worldwide - that proved the format's commercial potential.
Now, at least in theaters, 3-D looks like it's here to stay.
Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, a theater-industry consortium, recently announced that it had gathered $660 million to commence digital-projection upgrades to theaters across the U.S.
That means that by the end of the year, about half of U.S. theaters will potentially be 3-D ready. With virtually every studio tent pole released these days shot or converted to 3-D - the only question mark for theater owners that remains is how much more moviegoers will be willing to pay for 3-D engagement.
"This is about consumer tolerance," said one studio distribution official, when asked to explain the sudden sharp increase in ticket prices mandated by several top theater chains. "They are just trying to see where the ceiling is on up-charges so that they're not leaving any money on the table."
Watching movies at home has traditionally been a way for movie watchers to save money, which leads to the question, what about home 3-D? With consumer confidence ratings still below 50, a $20 movie ticket may be one thing, but $3,000 for a new TV and Blu-ray player might be quite another, given that many consumers have already plunked down for new flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs over the last few years.
With Blu-ray sales growing more slowly than they would have liked over the last three years, studios, retailers and consumer electronics makers have hooked their wagons to 3-D, banking on the hope that consumers who were willing to pay the premium ticket price to see Alice in Wonderland or How to Train Your Dragon in digital 3-D will also want to watch those movies in 3-D at home.
But this proposition seems more dicey, beyond just the economic factors. Is the American home-entertainment consumer - who is increasingly distracted with laptops and gaming devices - willing to sit still en masse and keep those funny glasses on?
"I don't know about you, but when I play games or watch TV, I've got my phone, I've got all kinds of things going on," said Aaron Greenberg, leader of Microsoft's Xbox development team, at a recent conference. "I get up, I get down, I'm looking outside at the weather ... I'm not in a dark theater, wearing glasses, staring at a screen. I think it's just a different environment."
And that environment just might make all the difference for the future of 3-D.