With the release of Avatar, we are currently poised on a major outbreak of one of Hollywood’s oldest gimmicks: 3-D. Will it work? Will it fall flat on its face? Only time will tell. It made for a nice fad back in the 1950’s when you could catch genre favorites like House of Wax, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space in three-dimensions, not to mention various Three Stooges shorts and “classics” like Bwana Devil. All you had to do then—as now—is wear a pair of those goony glasses and you were off into a theatrical land of enchantment where monsters jumped into your lap and knives flew in your face. The decline of 3-D in the ‘50’s was due mostly to the technology of the dual-strip format wherein two prints of the film had to be shown simultaneously to achieve the 3-D effect. If either print lost synchronization with the other, the result was unwatchable. Monetarily, the movies themselves were fairly successful, but the upkeep of the films, the repair and replacement costs, finally killed the first wave of 3-D.
Fast-forward to the present. With the success of Avatar and James Cameron’s unceasing efforts on the behalf of 3-D filmmaking, companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have announced that ALL their upcoming features will be shot in 3-D. A lot of Hollywood insiders are watching this announcement nervously and with good reason: only about 2500 of the country’s 38,000 screens have 3-D capability, something which is forcing makers of 3-D films into a war of competition as to whose films will get screen time and whose will be left writhing in the dirt like sun-struck worms…in other words, whose will make zero profit.
Back to James Cameron. Even before the release of Avatar, he was haunting trade shows and fan conventions, pushing theater owners and chains for 3-D conversion. Recently, at the National Broadcasters’ Digital Summit he addressed the harsh reality of steadily declining box office profits, saying the following: “We're in a fight for survival here…Digital 3-D is a revolutionary form of showmanship that is within our grasp. It can get people off their butts and away from their portable devices and get people back in the theaters where they belong.” Back where we belong. Oh boy. One gets the impression that Mr. Cameron does not have the greatest amount of respect for his audience. Maybe we should know our place. And our place is to fill the greedy coffers of a bloated, reeling Hollywood machine.
The reality. In tough economic times, theater owners are having a hard pull just like everyone else. Some people say declining box office receipts are simply due to the economic downturn and others are saying it's ample evidence that Hollywood’s output is scraping bottom, that creatively, tinsel town is in a major depression. Maybe it’s a little bit of everything. James Cameron seems to feel that 3-D is a giant Band-Aid that will heal all wounds and cover all unsightly abrasions and get us all back in the theaters where we belong so we can support the fat corporate monster of Hollywood which can barely contain the seams of its own pants. Well, that’s all and fine. Maybe he’s right. But here’s the reality. The majority of screens in the country—38,000 again—are 2-D, 35 mm. The cost to convert from 35mm projectors to a 3-D digital system is somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 per screen—this doesn’t take in the cost of 3-D glasses which are not cheap—which is a pretty significant amount of money and especially when times are tough. Probably pocket change to Mr. Cameron, but serious green to struggling theater owners and managers. And particularly when they say that they make roughly zero profit from the movies themselves and rely almost totally on concession sales to grease their wheels. $100,000 is a lot of popcorn.
Let’s also keep in mind that 3-D has reared its head more than once since the 1950’s. Remember the 1980’s 3-D wave? Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, Friday the Thirteenth Part 3, 3-D. Of course this particular “wave” was really just an attempt by Hollywood to breathe a bit of life into various tired franchises. Did it work? No. Not really. Will it this time around? Probably not.
Back to the 1950’s. The rise of TV, of course, hurt the theaters. It was much cheaper to stay home and watch your own screen than to drag the whole family out to the local movie house. Because even back then, it was not cheap. And today, to take a family of four to the movies means a major expenditure. Not something a lot of people can afford with any regularity. I recently read two very disturbing things. The first was that Mike Myers was paid something like $100,000 per minute for his voicing of the new Shrek movie and the second was that Will Farrell was paid $30 million per project. And we’re talking Mike Myers and Will Farrell here, not Johnny Depp or George Clooney. I shudder to think what the price tags of these guys might be. Let alone what it must cost to bring James Cameron on board for a project. And in my blue collar, working class thinking, paying anybody that much money for anything less than curing cancer is ridiculous. Nobody and I mean NOBODY is worth $30 million bucks or a $100,000 per minute to play pretend. With a bottomless money pit like this in operation it’s no wonder that profits are falling and the industry is having trouble recouping their original outlay. It’s insane. Absolutely insane. I have to wonder if Hollywood is ever going to pay any attention to movies like Paranormal Activity or Precious, both which were made on nominal budgets and scored huge box office profits…and neither required the debatable high-priced talents of Mike Myers or Will Farrell.
With that in mind, here’s my idea to end Hollywood’s financial woes: quit paying these people so much. Make films cheaper, give them realistic budgets. Pay your actors a million or two, but absolutely no more. And that goes for directors, too. They won’t work for less? Not at first they won’t, but if they find that the silver spoon has been yanked from their mouth and will not return, they’ll get hungry and they’ll come knocking on your door. Besides, a great many A-list actors regularly make indie films because it’s the only place they can get a decent script. So drive down the costs and that should drive down the ticket prices. Hence, more people will go to the movies. It’s simple common sense. And 3-D? It’s not the cure-all for anything. It’s fun…but you can’t do everything in 3-D. It’s a fun gimmick for sci-fi extravaganzas, fantasy films, action and horror. But it’s not going to do a thing for dramas. In the end, people are going to get tired of those glasses and this fad will fall as it has before.
That’s my take on it all, of course. According to a certain prominent director quoted in Entertainment Weekly, most people do not understand the Hollywood system at all, that the target audience for 80% of movies made these days is fifteen-year old boys. Apparently, they tend to be repeat viewers going to the same movie again and again, and they have more disposable income than us old people. Well, at least that explains trash like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and yet another tepid Saw sequel. If that’s Hollywood’s target audience, I’m completely out of the marketing loop and it explains perfectly why I only go to the movies three or four times a year…if that.
Now it’s true that I don’t understand the “business” of making movies, but, on the other hand, I do understand common sense and I firmly believe that Hollywood doesn’t have a clue what that even is anymore. If James Cameron really wants to get us back in the theaters, then how about some fiscal responsibility? With the whole country suffering economic woes and lay-offs, it’s high time to cut the fat. 3-D will not preserve the lumbering, bloated monster of Hollywood excess, it’ll only make it fall that much faster and that much harder. Time to start trimming. Really, it won’t hurt. The rest of us do it every day.