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Much has been made by the press and people inside the industry about the “death of 3D,” as forecast by this weekend’s lower-than-expected take for 3D screenings of Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: People didn’t want to watch Johnny Depp acting camp right in front of their faces! It’s the end of 3D cinema! It’s not, of course. But here’s the thing: If that is really the lesson that movie executives are taking away from the low box office last weekend, then the end of 3D really might be around the corner.
Just because Pirates‘ 3D haul was weak doesn’t mean that audiences are bored of 3D (If they were, wouldn’t 3D sales have fallen before this? The unrealistic alternative option is that audiences all across America suddenly decided on exactly the same weekend that they didn’t want to see any 3D movies anymore). Far, far more likely is that audiences just didn’t want to see this particular movie in 3d, which is an entirely different, and entirely understandable, thing. Think about it: What makes the Pirates movies fun – or, at least, as fun as they’ve been, which is an admittedly decreasing amount – isn’t the spectacle but the characters, which have been slowly turning into caricatures over the course of the first three movies. Increasing blandness + Little spectacle to earn the use of 3D = No real incentive for people to pay extra to see the movie in 3D.
(Admittedly, that doesn’t necessarily explain why IMAX earnings for the weekend were said to be “solid.” Perhaps people just like seeing pirate ships really, really big.)
The problem isn’t that 3D is over, the “problem” is that 3D as a novelty in and of itself is over. Audiences have had time to get over 3D as a gimmick, and now they’re at the point of picking and choosing which movies they want to go and see in 3D instead. Which is, in the grand scheme of things, great: It means that 3D just becomes another filmmaking tool, and not something that gets used everywhere and anywhere to artificially inflate the box office take of a movie. But watching the collective movie industry apparently have a nervous breakdown about the “failure” of Pirates in 3D suggests that they don’t agree that this is a good and necessary move, and that’s the real problem. The “right” next step for 3D is to keep making the movies, allow the audience decide what they want to see, and let the market correct itself. But what I’m worried is going to happen is that panicked movie execs, thinking that the 3D sky is falling, will just decide to pull out of 3D production altogether, and consign it to another fad, until someone like James Cameron comes along, makes Avatar 2 and the whole “OMG, 3D IS AWESOME” craze starts up again.
What we need is for 3D as gimmick to die, in order for 3D as… well, just part of filmmaking, to flourish. And in order for that to happen, people have to be okay with the idea that movies like Pirates of the Caribbean aren’t going to necessarily be smash hits with audiences every single time they get released. Not every film is worth the extra money and a pair of glasses, and you know what? That’s really okay.