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IMAX, 4k, Ring the Death Knell for 3D

by Arnie Carvalho

Did James Cameron wait too long for his Avatar sequels? It seems that by the time Avatar 2 is released (optimistically scheduled for 2020) the 3D format utilized by that 2009 original may be a thing of the past.

IMAX Announces 2D “Preference”

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond announced this week that the company will be reducing the number of 3D screenings on their high-priced, large format projectors and screens. He cited a “clear preference” from North American audiences for 2D films.

This statement of direction does not signal an abrupt shift. IMAX’s most recent release, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, was filmed and released only in 2D. (Nolan has a history of disliking the 3D format, refusing Warner Bros’ requrest for his Dark Knight films to be released in the format which commands a higher ticket price.)  Before that, the 3D post-converted Spider-Man: Homecoming was shown on IMAX screens in a combination of 2D and 3D presentation.  This is a change from even a year ago when most IMAX viewings required the audience to don a pair of special, plastic glasses.

This follows a recent history of movie-goers intentionally choosing 2D presentation and falling 3D ticket sales.

Home Video Flattens Out

It’s not only in theaters that 3D is dying. Movie viewers also have shown a preference for the 2D picture in their homes. In 2010, riding off Avatar’s success, High Definition Blu-Ray discs started shipping in 3D formats (the first of which was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).  3D features were included on all high-end 1080p televisions and home projectors.

However, with the recent advances in 4k resolution, 3D has become a feature of the past. Over the past few years television manufacturers like Sony and LG have phased out 3D capabilities on most of their 4k televisions. With their 2016 models LG only offered 3D on their curved television sets; in 2017 3D was removed altogether.  Likewise 4k home projectors are removing support for 3D, with only Sony offering true 4k projectors that are backwards-compatible with the 3D Blu-Ray format.

Indeed, there is no established standard for 4k home video content to be displayed in 3D; currently movie buyers must choose between the higher resolution or the greater depth in their films.

Is this a win for consumers?

These changes follow the standard market practice of meeting consumer demand.

The 3D format has long been rife with viewer complaints.  In addition to being forced to wear glasses to watch 3D content, be it in theaters or at home, many viewers could not appreciate the added dimension. Per vision insurance company VSP, 5% of the population cannot percieve 3D, and another 25% have trouble perceiving 3D images.  Another 25% or more have complained of headaches, eye strain, and eye fatigue from current 3D digital projection.

These complaints have gotten many people to buy special “2D Glasses” which allow them to see (non IMAX) 3D films in 2D format. (Now Playing Podcast host Marjorie can vouch for these glasses’ effectiveness.)

Many theater-goers also complained about the unreliable quality of 3D in films, much due to the post-conversion process many studios use to save money. The vast majority of 3D films were post-converted–in 2017 only Transformers: The Last Knight was shot natively in the 3D format. On Now Playing Podcast we have complained about lackluster 3D in Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the ApesPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and other movies.

Hollywood studios fought this trend. Many studios intentionally limited 2D availability of films, including 2012’s Prometheus, in order to reap higher profits from the inflated ticket prices.

Will this hurt studios?

Yet despite these consumer complaints, studios have continued to push the 3D format, which commands higher ticket prices.  As movie budgets continue to expand, the higher priced 3D tickets, IMAX tickets, and other “premium” theater experiences have bolstered studio bottom lines.  More, the 3D Blu-Rays sell for $30 or more, while their 2D counterparts are often half that. (Of note, the higher-resolution 4k Blu-Ray discs are often priced equal to, or higher than, their 3D counterparts.)

While the 3D Post Conversion can add $10 million or more to a film’s cost, the increased revenue often offsets that. Many older films, including Jurassic Park and Top Gun were post-converted and re-released to theaters to grab their studios a quick buck.

Yet this switch back to 2D may not bring cheaper ticket prices. AMC Theaters charges the same for 2D and 3D IMAX screenings. It’s possible theaters may raise all ticket prices to current 3D prices to help offset these losses. Also, studios and theater chains have discussed having “event movie” pricing, where tickets cost more for big-budget blockbusters with or without “premium” gimmicks like 3D.

No change for animation?

The movie format that has generated the greatest 3D success is kids’ fare and computer-animated movies, such as LEGO Batman and Moana.  As these films are entirely computer-generated the 3D is more ingrained in their development. The effects are better, and the audience for those films are primarily younger and not yet burnt-out by the format. While Gelfond made no specific mention of animated films staying in 3D, it is likely these will remain in that format for years to come.

Modern 3D History

The modern 3D era was brought in by Cameron in two waves. In 2003 the first modern, digital 3D film was his IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss.  The format had a slow growth over the next six years, mostly as a gimmick in kids films including Spy Kids and The Polar Express.

The change to 3D was a clumsy one. Superman Returns and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix both had select scenes converted to IMAX 3D–requiring customers to don and remove


glasses through the films.

Modern 3D came into its own in 2009. By that time the 3D cameras required had come down in price. Horror films (which had heavily relied on 3D in the ’80s) got into the game with My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination.  Animated films premiered in the format, including Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

But Cameron ushered in a new age with the 3D film Avatar. Somewhat bolstered by 3D and IMAX ticket prices, Avatar became the top-grossing film of all-time. This created a 3D “gold rush” among studios, exponentially increasing the quantity of 3D films produced.

This growth continued until 2011, when 63 3D movies were released.  Growth then leveled off through 2015, when the number of films started to decline.

With these changes to home video and IMAX formats, it is likely 3D films may return to their pre-Avatar numbers.

What do we lose, besides depth?

I’m no great fan of 3D. However, as a movie-goer who prefers to see the movie as the director intended, I’m slightly upset by the loss of the 3D home format. Every movie I’ve purchased since 2010 has been in 3D, if available. I was especially happy with the Transformers films which not only were released in 3D but also changed to the IMAX aspect ratio for their home video releases.

I remember growing up watching movies like Friday the 13th Part III, Jaws 3-D, Emmanuelle 4, and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare on video. All three films had 3D components in theaters which translated poorly to television.  The moments of “I can tell that should be 3D” worsened each viewing experience.

I recently purchased my first 4k TV and had to go through great pains to find one that would continue to support my 3D Blu-Ray discs. It seems in the next five years any movie with great 3D, such as Avatar, Tron: Legacy, and X-Men: Apocalypse will only be seen in their flattened versions.

Even movies filmed in 2D, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had effects sequences specifically designed in 3D to showcase the technology.

Home movie viewers will lose the ability to view many movies from the past decade as they were intended to be seen.

Final Thought

But overall, I believe 3D is a gimmick that more than ran its course. I applaud IMAX for choosing consumers over studios, and I hope that filmmakers now focus on plot and character depth, instead of manufactured depth on the screen.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

July 28, 2017 Posted by | Movies, News | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The 40 Year-Old-Critic: Avatar (2009)

In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.avatar

See a list of all reviews

Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. Audiences loved the film, as did most critics. Yet in 2009 the film failed to excite me, my review was controversial, and to this day Avatar continues to give me a headache. To this day I also remember the buildup to that film’s release… and the aftermath.

I had heard rumblings about Avatar for years. James Cameron’s last theatrical film had been Titanic in 1997 — then the top-grossing film of all time — and after that massive success the director dropped out of the spotlight, focusing his time on a few IMAX documentaries. It seemed quite possible in my mind that Cameron might not ever make a film again, and with each passing year I paid less attention to the rumors that swirled about his next project.

It wasn’t until San Diego Comic-Con in 2009 that Avatar truly grabbed my attention. Signs showcasing the blue Na’vi aliens were everywhere, and all the buzz at the convention was about 20th Century Fox’s panel and the Avatar footage they would show.

My curiosity was piqued. I was a fan of Cameron’s films in the 80s and early 90s; the two Terminator films and Aliens are among some of my favorite movies. I was less thrilled with The Abyss and True Lies, and Titanic was the breaking point. The film was way too long in all respects, and while I thought it was competently made I never cared for it. As such, I wanted to see what the man who made Terminator 2 would do, but his later works prevented me from being excited.

As I wasn’t passionate for Avatar I never even thought it should be reviewed on Now Playing Podcast. That idea came from my co-host Stuart.

My memory is slightly fuzzy, but as I recall Avatar was the first film Stuart ever championed to review on the show.

Before 2009 Stuart had reviewed two only two movies for Now Playing. In 2008 I asked him to review Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I knew that compilation of episodes that Warner Bros. laughingly called a “film” was an atrocity that made The Phantom Menace look like The Maltese Falcon by comparison. Yet due to my primary podcast, Star Wars Action News, I didn’t want to eviscerate the film myself for fear of alienating any Star Wars fans excited for Clone Wars. Stuart had been writing reviews for another website for some time, and as he was one of my few friends who was not a fan of Star Wars, I felt he’d be perfect for the job.

Later that same year Stuart came to visit and we ended up seeing the Clive Barker film The Midnight Meat Train. Marjorie suggested we record a Now Playing review and I was shocked how much fun I had. Stuart’s knowledge of film plus my own horror fandom made that easily one of my favorite “early episodes” we recorded. But it was a one-off recording; there were no plans for there ever to be another. Still, I wanted to talk more horror with Stuart.

But Now Playing was not a priority for me in 2007 or 2008. During those years the show had languished; lack of regular content caused downloads to drop from the thousands to the tens. Several efforts to reignite the show had not caught on with listeners, but I enjoyed having an outlet to discuss movies when so inclined.

Things started to turn around in January 2009 when I was inspired to return to Now Playing to review the rebooted Friday the 13th, and it wasn’t enough to just do that one movie — I wanted to review the entire Friday the 13th series. And I wanted Stuart to join us.

He was hesitant. He didn’t love the franchise and wasn’t entirely sure what would be involved. Still, he agreed. Even with the lower caliber Friday entries, the recording sessions were fun. More, the audience was responding, and we started getting thousands of listeners again. As such, near the end of the Friday the 13th Retrospective we decided to continue going with Star Trek.

Things snowballed, and by late 2009 Stuart had been on dozens of shows discussing The Terminator, Halloween and more. Yet it seemed he was going along with the group. Even though there were series where he strongly liked early installments, the new releases didn’t excite him. The theatrical weekend-of-release recordings left him cold.

Zoe Saldana in blue. She'd later go green for Marvel.

Zoe Saldana in blue. She’d later go green for Marvel.

Until Avatar. After a long series of Halloween movie reviews Stuart wanted to do a one-off review for Cameron’s newest film.

Now it was my turn to resist.

I was hesitant for a number of reasons. First, Now Playing had tried for years to do weekend-of-release reviews, but it was the retrospective series’ that really clicked with listeners. Even in 2009 Marjorie and I had done a couple one-off reviews, but they didn’t reach a wide audience.

More, I was the editor for weekend-of-release recordings. Those shows take a bigger time commitment than any other. It’s easy to be a host on a series that doesn’t excite you — two hours of watching, two hours of recording, and you’re done. As the editor I’d have to spend another dozen hours, or more, editing and polishing the show. It’s hard to commit that amount of time for a film in which I had only mild interest.

But Stuart had been agreeable, reviewing some schlocky horror along the way. And he had already signed on for 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street retrospective, a series I was ecstatic about. Now Playing scheduling is all about negotiation, so I agreed not only to Avatar but also to his idea of a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio team-up retrospective that would kick off 2010.

Plus Stuart followed film development and studio tracking far more than I did, and he knew how big Avatar would be.

Not to say I was totally resistant. More than wanting to be a team player and “give one up” for Stuart, as the film’s marketing started to hit I was curious. As I recall though, that curiosity was more muted, and it never reached a Spider-Man 3 level where I’d have been moved to podcast about the movie. But I did get swept up in the hype enough to give Avatar the “full Now Playing treatment” — special opening and closing credits.

In many ways Stuart was right. I never would have predicted Avatar would be the biggest film ever. That Cameron’s work could best even Titanic seemed unreal to me, yet it happened. And Stuart was also right that our review would get a lot of downloads; there was interest in the movie, and so it followed that our downloads were the highest we’d gotten for a one-off review at that time.

But I had to be honest in my review of the film, and I didn’t like it very much. Avatar was made by the James Cameron who directed Titanic, not the Cameron who directed The Terminator. The story was unoriginal and propagated the story trope of an indigenous people needing a white, male savior. The movie wasn’t terrible, but it was overly long and I never found myself enthralled with the world of Pandora. It seemed Cameron had spent too much time making documentaries and forgot how to tell a story.

But the technology impressed the living hell out of me. Cameron, at his best, is a filmmaker of tight, exciting action movies, but even when he’s not at his best he pushes the envelope of filmmaking. The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Titanic all represented giant leaps in computer-generated effects. With Avatar, Cameron not only used computer imagery, but he also advanced 3-D technology to a level I’d not seen outside of theme parks.

In 2009, 3-D films were still a novelty to me. Growing up after the boom of 3-D in the 50s I only got to see two films in that format: Jaws 3-D and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (which only had the climax in 3-D). Yet the idea of being immersed in a film was exciting, so I went to see the Terminator show at Universal Studios with its amazing 3-D effects, I went to a museum to see the IMAX 3-D documentary Space Station, and I even went to see Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over in 2003 despite never having seen the first two Spy Kids films.

A screenshot of the film's groundbreaking effects.

A screenshot of the film’s groundbreaking effects.

Slowly, 3-D films were returning, propelled by digital projection technologies. I had to travel hours to digital theaters to see such films as My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination just for the effects. They were good; gimmicky, but fun.

Yet none could hold a candle to Avatar, which not only had eye-popping effects but added depth to the frame. The 3-D was at times attention-grabbing, but at other times subtle. For the first time I saw how this new technique could really aid films in drawing viewers into the story.

That was what I thought leaving the theater in 2009. For this article I revisited Avatar on video (albeit in 2-D), and listened to the archived Now Playing Podcast review. I stand by everything I say; the movie was really impressive to look at, but also horribly dull.

The film ended up with one “Recommend” from Stuart. Marjorie — who had also co-hosted the Terminator reviews and thus was the natural choice to co-host more Cameron reviews — sided with me, and we gave two “Not Recommends.”

Reviews are a funny thing, no matter what you say, it pisses someone off. Every Now Playing host has received vitriol-filled e-mails, tweets, reviews, and more from listeners who disagree with their opinions. Rarely is this feedback constructive, filled with counter-arguments that support an opposing view. Usually the e-mails feel like notes from a kindergarten student, tantamount to saying, “You are a doodie-head,” though with many more four-letter words and, in some special cases, threats of physical violence.

Sometimes liking a film can be cause for this type of reaction, but it’s more common with negative reviews. No matter what title is being discussed, somewhere that film has an ardent fan whose feelings are hurt by having their film criticized. Superman IV, Halloween III, even Star Trek V, they all have their supporters.

While we received a few nasty-grams for our negative reviews of the Friday the 13th reboot, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, and even 2009’s Star Trek, nothing prepared me for the backlash I would receive for giving Avatarmild “Not Recommend.” The attacks came from all sources, but primarily nasty e-mails. Listeners not only said they were never listening to our show again, they wanted to be sure I knew it, and not just from watching server traffic. They wanted to make noise as they (supposedly) walked out the door.

Our audience only continued to increase throughout 2010, but the scathing, often personal, attacks let me realize that by putting myself out there and expressing my thoughts I was really opening myself up for a lot of negativity.

While that trend has continued — each host speaking unpopular truths — I’m happy to report the positive feedback from listeners far outweighs the negative, but in the midst of Avatar-gate there were times it didn’t feel that way.

Yet, for all the attacks I received in 2009 for giving Avatar a red arrow, I have to wonder; is there still the love for this film? It truthfully feels like that movie was a flash in a pan. I see the disc on Walmart movie racks, but I know of no one who regularly re-watches the movie. It’s not in rotation on cable, network, or pay television. I see no Na’vi cosplay at conventions, and rarely does Avatar show up on lists I read of favorite or best films.

Will we see these two on screen again?

Will we see these two on screen again?

If you still love, or even strongly like, Avatar, please let me know in the comments below. For while the studio talks of two, and now three, sequels in concurrent production, I simply don’t see the demand from the fan base. Actually, I don’t even see the fan base existing at all.

So in that regard I feel vindicated. Unlike Titanic, which was inescapable for many years after its release, Avatar seems forgotten.

But I am not above issuing a correction when due, and I did say something in our 2009 review that history has proven untrue. I stated Avatar was the best looking film I’d ever seen, with the greatest 3-D effects to date, and I stand by those thoughts. I continued, though, that the next year we’d see films with even better CGI visuals, and even greater 3-D, and in that I was dead wrong. Cameron is more than an artist, he’s a technician. He has both the will, and (thanks to his track record) the studio support, to linger in development and ensure the films he makes always reach new heights. Yet here we are, five years later, and no film has bested Avatar‘s use of 3-D in film. Cameron’s work is still my high watermark against which I measure all other 3-D.

More, it seems no filmmaker is even trying to achieve that result. Technical difficulties have kept many directors away from filming in 3-D. Joss Whedon had intended to shoot 2012’s The Avengers in 3-D, but while filming the Thor stinger scene he encountered numerous production delays caused by the cameras. As such, he abandoned the medium and chose to shoot in 2-D.

Disney then post-converted The Avengers to 3-D for theaters.

And that may be Avatar’s longest lasting, and worst, outgrowth — the 3-D cash grab. It was not just by popularity that Avatar became the world’s top-grossing film, much of that was due to inflated ticket prices. The general cost of movie tickets has been steadily rising for decades, but premium surcharges put on IMAX presentations and 3-D films boosted Avatar to even greater heights. Studios wanted to continue to reap those rewards. It took a year for studios to implement the change, but by 2011 almost every major motion picture released was in 3-D — the majority post-converted in order to make more money through higher ticket prices.

Recently it seems that audiences are wising up to this gimmick and realizing that, especially with post-conversion 3-D films, the effects are not worth the extra cost. Many articles I’ve read point to a decline in 3-D film popularity. But to this day, every time I go to theaters and pay a 3-D surcharge, and every time I leave the theater with an eye-strain headache due to a piss-poor 3-D post-conversion job, I know that is truly Avatar‘s legacy.

Perhaps Cameron will succeed in bringing Avatar back to the screens. Hopefully the story will be more original, and tighter. More importantly, maybe they will change Avatar‘s place in film history from “the film that popularized 3-D” to “the sci-fi fantasy saga of the 21st Century.”

Or perhaps I’ll give more negative reviews to dull films.

Time will tell.

But then again, perhaps the true, best legacy of Avatar was expanding Now Playing’s boundaries. It’s not often that we do one-off reviews, but Stuart’s correct insistence that we review Cameron’s 2009 epic exposed our show to new listeners and helped expand even the type of film we review. For that, I am grateful.

Tomorrow — 2010!

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec    

September 8, 2014 Posted by | 40-Year-Old Critic, Movies, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments