10 new rules for saving 3D cinema

Enough with the gimmickry, price gouging and 2D conversions
Why 3D is turning out to be a bust
Paramount Pictures; Getty Images; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

It was hailed as the biggest revolution in cinema technology since colour. But less than two years after the triumph of Avatar, 3D seems to be wearing thin. For the first time since the new digital format was launched, the majority of viewers are choosing to watch 3D movies in 2D versions—at least in the U.S., where a 3D ticket bears a $5 premium. There, 2D outpaced 3D at the box office by about 60 per cent for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, Green Lantern—and in advance sales for the final Harry Potter movie. Canada is another story. “We see movies consistently outperforming in 3D,” says Cineplex Entertainment spokesperson Pat Marshall, explaining that Cineplex charges just a $3 premium. But as American audiences abandon 3D, studio executives who once embraced it as cinema’s salvation are sounding the alarm. Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, called the trend “heartbreaking.” Blaming a glut of bad 3D movies from other studios, he told the Hollywood Reporter: “We have disappointed our audience multiple times now, and because of that I think there is genuine distrust.”

3D’s big test is Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which opened Tuesday. James Cameron convinced Michael Bay to shoot in 3D, providing the tech he created for Avatar. But armed with that third dimension, Bay’s blitzkrieg style of kinetic action is exhausting to watch. And it will take more than a sci-fi sequel to restore our faith. To cop a phrase from Bill Maher, here are 10 New Rules for saving 3D:

1. Sell 3D and 2D tickets at the same price. Studios complain 3D movies cost more to make, while exhibitors carp about upgrading theatres. Who cares? Viewers suspect they’re being gouged. If you’re trying to acclimatize the audience to an iffy new technology, level the playing field. That would also be the acid test of 3D quality—to see how many people would still choose to see the 2D version.

2. Abolish 3D “conversion.” Hollywood has tried to capitalize on the 3D boom by converting 2D movies. The results range from unsatisfying (Alice in Wonderland) to disastrous (Thor). Movies shown in 3D should be designed and shot in 3D.

3. No more half-assed 3D. Green Lantern cost $200 million, but you’d never know it from the diorama-like visuals. Scenes set on a planet of purple aliens have painted backdrops that make deep space look flat.

4. Unless you’re shooting a porn movie, stop pimping out 3D as a special effect. Enough with the poking, jabbing and zooming. Look, we walk around in 3D all day long without noticing. Breaking the fourth wall with a gun or a spear takes us out of the movie.

5. Provide better, non-disposable glasses. Polarized shades diminish the screen’s luminosity, one reason Christopher Nolan refused to make Inception in 3D. I wore high-tech “active-shutter” glasses at the Pirates premiere in Cannes. They didn’t salvage a bad movie, but the glasses did seem clearer—once I got a pair that didn’t have a dead battery.

6. Cut the tempo of fast-action scenes in half. That third plane of motion complicates everything; it makes our eyes work harder, and more independently. Give them a break.

7. Treat the proscenium as an aquarium. It’s no coincidence that Cameron drew his inspiration from deep-sea diving. Immersion, not bombardment, is 3D’s operative metaphor. In Avatar, the quiet moments in Pandora’s jungle were the most effective: we had an uncanny feeling that we were in the movie.

8. Take a cue from Werner Herzog and make 3D a tool for documentary revelation. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams brings to life 30,000-year-old cave art in southern France—you can almost touch the charcoal drawings of rhinos, horses and lions on contoured stone.

9. Make movies in 3D, not for 3D. Animation got it right with Up and Toy Story 3, but Kung Fu Panda 2 pandered to the medium’s visual gimmickry.

10. Get creative. 3D was miscast as a marketing gimmick wedded to the action blockbuster. Why not use it to open up the art house? The Tree of Life’s trippy rapture might be even better in 3D. There’s no telling where that third dimension might lead if it were married to emotional depth.