Sunday, March 22, 2009

2-D or not 2-D

We see the world as a two-dimensional image, a flat picture with height and width. Depth is an illusion (and not just in the world of optics), a trick of converging lines and spatial perspective. It's a useful illusion. It enables us to gauge distances and relationships. But it is an illusion nonetheless, easily fooled as artists and stage magicians know well.

Looking at a normal two-dimensional movie screen, we see the image essentially the same way we see the world; a flat image that provides the illusion of depth with all the optical tricks mentioned above. That's as much of a third dimension as a human being can perceive. No more. That's it.

So why do movie execs continue to try to foist 3-D on us? Why is this 1950s fad back with such a savage vengeance? Is it even profitable?

Adding 3-D to a movie jacks up the average film budget around $10 million dollars. That's craft services money for most big films, so the cost outlay isn't prohibitive. But what has been the return? I don't believe there has ever been a controlled scientific study of how a movie does as 3-D compared to how it does as 2-D, so there's no way to authoritatively say how much 3-D adds to a film's gross, if anything.

But here's an interesting little trivia question: Without skipping down to the next paragraph (cheater), what's the highest grossing 3-D film in history, in terms of raw, unadjusted American dollars? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

According to our friends over at, the top-grossing 3-D film of all time is that box office juggernaut Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over with a not-too-terribly whopping 111.7 million dollar take. To put that number in perspective, the first non-3-D Spy Kids movie did 112.7 million.

To put that number in further perspective, the highest grossing documentary of all time is Fahrenheit 911 which took in 119.2 million. That's right, the highest grossing documentary -- Documentary, for crying out loud! -- outgrossed the all-time 3-D box office champ.

Given numbers like that, it's hard to make a case for 3-D as a box office force.

But this Friday, that's all going to change. This Friday will see the release of Monsters Vs. Aliens in 3-D and it will almost certainly blast the Spy Kids 3 numbers back to the stone age. But will it be because of the 3-D? Wouldn't an appealing, marketable property like Monsters Vs. Aliens do just fine at the box office without the gimmicky 3-D?

There's no denying that the 3-D technology has markedly improved since the days of (the original) House of Wax and Bwana Devil. But just because you can do something, does that mean you should? 3-D still means dumb glasses and blurry images and headaches (for me, at least), even with the improved tech.

My objections notwithstanding, 2009 is shaping up to be the year of 3-D at the movies. We've already seen one terrific film -- Coraline -- which benefited not one whit from an occasional 3-D trick. We've also seen the Jonas Brothers 3-D concert movie come and go and tank.

In months to come, there are a number of 3-D films on the horizon, most notably the latest from the geniuses at Pixar, Up. Will 3-D do anything for these movies and their respective bottom lines?

All I know is I'm going to end up stuck in a theater on Friday trying to squint through ill-fitting, stupid-looking glasses to try and enjoy Monsters Vs. Aliens. I wonder if my theater has a non-3-D showing scheduled. Oh wait. I just checked. Nope!

I'll just have to ride out the gimmick. I suspect that any box office pop from 3-D is as illusory as the technology itself.

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