Note: Reprint of my article recently published in Home Media Magazine
When CES 2014 ended, I half-expected to see an obituary for 3D from the press. While some TV manufacturers, such as Vizio, eliminated 3D as a feature on their 2014 models, others (like Panasonic) reduced the number of models with this feature. While the number of 3D movies being released to theatres hasn’t quite diminished, the number of screens and showings has, with some of the smaller exhibitors (36-screen Starlight Cinemas chain in Southern California) getting out of 3D altogether. Some say the nail in the coffin came with Disney’s decision to forego the release of a 3D Blu-ray edition of one of their most successful animated films in years, Frozen. How did we get to this point, and is 3D really dead?
3D-capable Televisions Arrived Too Late: Samsung and Panasonic debuted their 3D televisions in 2010. The problem was that close to 65% of US households had already upgraded to HDTV, and did not plan on upgrading again for at least another 5 years. It also did not help that most of the early 3D content on Blu-ray were tied up in long-term exclusive deals with TV manufacturers. Avatar, Coraline, and Ice Age 2 were available only if you purchased a Panasonic 3D TV. Dreamworks Animation signed a similar deal with Samsung, bundling Monsters vs. Aliens, How To Train Your Dragon, Megamind, and the Shrek franchise with pairs of Samsung 3D glasses.
High Cost of Active 3D Glasses With No Universal Standard: When 3D TV’s first arrived at retailers, most sets came with one pair of 3D glasses. Up until the 2013 model year, most Panasonic active 3D sets shipped without glasses. If a customer needed additional pairs, the cost was typically around $100 each. Costs have come down considerably for some manufacturers (Samsung’s glasses sell for $19.99 for battery operated, $49.99 for rechargeable), but Panasonic are still quite high at $69.99. What is worse is that many of the manufacturers, when they introduced a new and improved pair of glasses, they were not backwards compatible with prior model year TVs. Anyone who owns one of the last LG active 3D plasmas is pretty much out of luck if they need new or additional pairs, as those have all but disappeared.
Public Perception of Limited Content: When I tell people I have a 3D-capable TV, they often ask why I bothered, since there is little to no content. If you look, you will find it. Most people are unaware that Netflix has many movies available in 3D on their streaming service, and that is largely due to the fact that Netflix quietly began offering 3D content, and still offers it rather quietly. As of this writing, Netflix was offering The Croods, Beowulf, Joe Dante’s The Hole, etc. There are over a hundred titles available on 3D Blu-ray (but very few places to rent them). Wal-Mart’s streaming service, VUDU, has several titles available in 3D, as does PlayStation Network. Many cable and satellite services offer pay-per-view movies in 3D. None of this is very well publicized, hence the public perception. One thing that did get a lot of public attention, though, was the announcement of ESPN 3D going off the air, with most 3D naysayers proclaiming it was the public’s rejection of 3D. My opinion is that most people didn’t want to watch that same 2-3 year old football game or boxing match over and over again.
High Cost of Content: It is understandable that 3D Blu-ray titles, when the format first launched, were around $50. It is nearly 4 years later, and most 3D Blu-rays have remained with an MSRP of $49.99. Granted, most retailers rarely sell a movie at full sticker price, especially during pre-sales and the first week of release. After that, prices typically soar to prices that the public feels a bit out of reach, and that is likely tied to what little margin the retailer gets from the studio. Disney appears to be the largest offender (and not just with 3D titles). Iron Man 3 currently sells on Amazon for $35.99 (it was as low as $31.99 during its debut). The Lion King is $44.99 on Amazon, $29.99 its first week back in October 2011. But, then, there is Disney’s mis-step with the 3D-only Oz the Great and Powerful, which contained no bonus materials whatsoever, yet the 2d version was loaded with bonus material. And, quite recently, Disney has done it again with Frozen, by skipping a 3D Blu-ray release and offering the 3d version on VUDU and PSN only (at a cost of $34.99, again, with no bonus features unless you purchase the 2D/3D bundle for just a dollar more). If you check out Frozen’s Facebook page, and read the comments made by fans, you will see there is quite a high demand for a 3D Blu-ray release, but Disney is keeping quiet on this controversy.
3D Surcharge at the Local Cineplex: I still do not understand the reason for this, although I used to think it was to pay for the glasses. What is even more confusing is the variance in this surcharge. Most Regal Cinemas locations charge $4.00, as do AMC and Cinemark. But the smaller chains charge a lot less, some as low as $2.00. This surcharge often brings ticket prices in excess of $19.00.
Finally, Too Many Bad 3D Conversions: I’ve seen some really good 3D conversions of films originally shot in 2D. Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the first films to be converted and released theatrically in the Digital3D format, still stands as one of the best conversions I’ve seen. Star Trek: Into Darkness, Toy Story, and Gravity are in the same category. But then there was the rushed Clash of the Titans, poorly converted to 3D at the 23rd hour by Warner Bros as an attempt to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the box office. Other bad conversions include Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, Man of Steel, John Carter, The Last Airbender, Gulliver’s Travels, and Hoodwinked Too. These films, and many others, soured the 3D experience for many moviegoers, causing fewer screens and showtimes being devoted to 3D and eventually the perception by the studios that the public is now rejecting 3D. What the studios do not understand is that the public is rejecting BAD 3D, since Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit, Gravity, and (quite ironically) Frozen were embraced by true fans of 3D.
So, is 3D dead? It is definitely in a state of decline, but not out for the count. I prefer to say that 3D is going into hibernation, waiting for James Cameron’s much anticipated Avatar sequels to help give 3D its much deserved comeback. Until then, expect 3D to be on life support, and fans like myself will just have to wait out the storm.