Point of View

The dimensions of demand: Billions at stake as 3-D reaches new realms

February 28, 2014 

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KLAIKUNGWON — Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I asked America’s favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, in 2011 his opinion of 3-D as a cinematic medium, he hardly hesitated in replying: “I consider 3-D a waste of a perfectly good dimension.”

Despite a perpetual quest for more immersive viewing experiences, most of us have shared Ebert’s sentiment. Poor projection, mediocre content and uncomfortable glasses have frustrated all but the most ardent champions of 3-D cinema. Casual moviegoers mostly refuse to pay the premium price that 3-D presentations command over 2-D at the box office.

“Pompeii” in 3-D, anyone? (Maybe not, despite the producers’ $100 million investment.)

On the home front, the news has been worse. Families investing in 3-D-ready HDTVs can’t find much use for that feature unless they crave special events like Masters golf in 3-D once a year. After a major investment by Panasonic failed to build an appetite for 3-D television during the 2012 summer games in London, the Winter Olympics broadcasts from Sochi were strictly 2-D.

But anyone willing to open eyes, ears and minds to the possibilities of stereoscopic film and video viewing should see that 3-D may finally be getting ready for prime time. And without glasses! Technology and content are merging toward the proverbial tipping point, breaking down the barriers that have limited 3-D’s proliferation.

So which nations and industries will profit most by this sudden, global 3-D-ification? And how much of a premium will consumers pay for more immersive viewing experiences? With billions of eyeballs and dollars at stake, the answers are quickly emerging.

The sky-high critical and box office successes of “Gravity” in Real D, IMAX and Blu-Ray (released this week) formats mark the latest peak along the erratic range of 3-D releases. Most of the film’s gross receipts have come from 3-D releases, a rarity for feature films aimed at mature audiences. A slew of Academy Awards this weekend should launch it into higher orbit, pushing the worldwide gross over the $1 billion mark. It recently became the third film to exceed $100 million in IMAX ticket sales, joining “Avatar” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Another 3-D smash, “The Lego Movie,” may not rise to Gravity’s level of artistry, but as America’s top theatrical release for three straight weeks (and counting), this picture is steadily building a tower of money, brick by brick. Still, these anecdotal stateside success stories do not guarantee the future of 3-D.

The real action that’s transforming 3-D is across the Pacific, where there are strong markets for 3-D releases and vested interests in 3-D’s future.

3-D demand in China is stronger than ever. Movie-going there is still a novelty, so 3-D ticket sales are strong for both American and Chinese films. And it’s only going to grow, as almost 500 new IMAX theaters are scheduled for construction this year across China to satisfy the national appetite for an extra dimension.

In Korea and Japan, designated sites for Olympic Games in 2018 and 2020, respectively, demand is also healthy, and these industrial nations have even bigger plans for building screens to showcase 3-D.

Korean and Japanese television manufacturers are building ultra-high definition (UHD) televisions that will let viewers enjoy the 3-D experience without glasses for the first time. UHD sets on display at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offered a glimpse into America’s 3-D future.

At the annual 3-D Stereo Media event in Liege, Belgium, in December, I stumbled upon “Avatar” showing in a hotel lobby. When it actually took me more than a moment to realize I was enjoying James Cameron’s epic in 3-D without glasses, I knew the game was changing.

The viewing experience wasn’t perfect, to be sure. But the technology will surely improve – and quickly. Eventually, these nations that bring us 3-D products by Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Panasonic will break down whatever barriers to ubiquitous 3-D remain.

It’s too bad Roger Ebert didn’t live long enough to offer us his usual brilliant criticism for “Gravity” in 3-D. My guess is this astonishing cinematic achievement would have changed his mind, and glasses-free 3-D would have turned his head.

If I could pose him my question again, I bet his answer would be different. A dimension is a terrible thing to waste.

Ted Bogosian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is teaching a 3-D cinema class at Duke University.

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