Tuesday, August 30, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Review part II: The summer of 3D proves, in America at least, 'It's the movie (stupid)'. Overseas is a more complicated situation...

This summer was supposed to be the first real test for the mainstream viability of the 3D format in cinema.  While the format had been a fringe indulgence for horror films and animated movies, it obviously became a full-on sensation following the release of Avatar in December, 2009.  2010 saw a handful of high-profile 3D conversions, as studios hastily converted some of their big-budget tentpoles (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and/or low-budget cult pictures (Piranha 3D, My Soul to Take)  into the format under the delusion that Avatar made $2.7 billion worldwide only because it was in 3D.  But this was the supposed to be the sink-or-swim year for the 3D film.  Was it merely a passing fad, or was it here to stay?  The answer is, alas, more complicated.  First and foremost, as long as studios can spend $5-$10 million to convert a film to 3D and then charge an extra 33% or so per ticket, 3D isn't going away.  So while 3D was not the answer to studios' prayers domestically, it took the industry by storm in overseas markets, which mattered all the more this year, the first summer on record where domestic box office was all-but beside the point.  And of course, the embrace of 3D was always about more than just that $3-$5 up-charge.  It was about countering overseas piracy, and on that front, it was a HUGE success.  But when you look at the films that scored in 3D and the films that flopped in 3D, you notice something that should have been obvious.  The films that hit were always going to be big hits, while the 3D flops never stood a chance in any dimension.

If you were to take a guess at the top films of summer 2011, they would probably include some combination of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II ($370 million), Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($350 million), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($240 million), Cars 2 ($187 million), Thor ($181 million), Captain America ($169 million), and Kung Fu Panda 2 ($164 million). In the realm of 2D, The Hangover part II ($254 million), Fast Five ($209 million) and X-Men: First Class ($146 million) were also destined to join the club, while Bridesmaids ($168 million), Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($149 million and climbing), and The Help ($96 million and climbing even faster) were relative surprises (all were expected to be hits, but not mega-smashes).  And if you were to take a stab at which summer films just wouldn't click with audiences, among the films on your list would likely be Priest, Conan the Barbarian, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, and Fright Night.  You'll notice three of those titles were released just two weekends ago.  That's because the studios, up until the end of the summer, generally reserved the 3D format for their biggest films, rather than use it to allegedly 'add value' to their smaller releases.  Green Lantern and Cowboys and Aliens were always 50/50 propositions.  But Green Lantern ($116 million) didn't tank because of its 3D conversion (one of the better ones, ironically) anymore than Cowboys and Aliens ($94 million) flopped due to its 2D existence.  Super 8 ($126 million) did about as well as could be expected, as its primary fault was betting to be the one good movie in a summer full of bad genre entries (most of the would-be tentpoles were actually pretty good, while Super 8 was not).

But what it also shows that the films that hit it big in 3D would have been big hits in 2D.  The Smurfs would have caught on in 2D or 3D.  Harry Potter 7.2 and Transformers 3 were always going to duke it out for the summer box office crown.  Yes, there were some kinks in regards to bigger numbers and fewer tickets for this film or that.  Yes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II broke the Fri-Sun opening weekend record with $169 million primarily due to 3D price-inflation (had 100% of the tickets been in 2D, the film would have opened with about $150 million, or good for third place).  And we can do the math for what Tree of Life would have grossed if it had been converted to 3D or if Thor had merely been in 2D (for now, data is only generally available for opening weekend percentage of 3D tickets), but the films grossed what the films grossed.  As long as they were profitable according to their respective budgets and marketing costs, then how they got to those figures is of debatable relevance.  Point being, the 3D films that were generally expected to succeed had a token increase in grosses domestically due to their 3D conversions.  And the 3D films that were likely always going to flop gained nothing by their 3D formats.

The only major domestic statistic worth discussing is the percentage drop that took place over the summer.  Quite simply, 45% became the new normal.  With the exception of certain alleged high-value 3D attractions (Transformers: Dark of the Moon grossed over 60% of its opening weekend in 3D) and smaller releases that didn't have a wealth of 2D options (Fright Night, Conan the Barbarian, Glee: the 3D Concert MovieSpy Kids 4, Conan the Barbarian, and Fright Night), 3D can have a long and healthy life as an optional supplement.  When it's worth it (Transformers 3, Final Destination 5, Green Lantern), audiences can splurge.  When it's not (Captain AmericaFright NightHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II), audiences can choose 2D.

Overseas is a different story, however.  2011 was the year that overseas box office absolutely exploded.  Three films, all in 3D, grossed $1 billion in the span of about two months.  Yes, Harry Potter 7.2, Transformers 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 were always going to be worldwide monsters, but the massive overseas response to 3D, as well as the large number of films that did 2/3 of their business, if not more, in foreign markets, tells a different tale.  Not only is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II the third-biggest global blockbuster of all-time (behind Avatar and Titanic with $1.2 billion), it achieved that feat in just over three weeks.  For now, outside of America, 3D is a major player and perhaps the 'game-changer' or 'industry savior' that Jeffrey Katzenberg and others hoped it would be.  In foreign markets, 2D theaters are not quite as plentiful for these 3D attractions.  It would seem that 3D has served at least one of its primary purposes: discouraging piracy.  Piracy is a much bigger problem overseas than it is on domestic shores.  But you can't accurately pirate a 3D film.  Thus, audiences have no choice but to see these films in the theaters.  One could argue that studios shouldn't be forcing overseas audiences to choose '3D or nothing' in order to discourage piracy, but that's a moral argument for another day.  Anyway, for whatever reason, overseas business turned middling hits here (Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cars 2), into massive smashes on a worldwide scale.  All of the above examples grossed less than their predecessors domestically, but both surpassed the previous films in their respective franchises worldwide by a decent margin.  Whether 3D is to blame or not, 2011 is certainly the summer when America became just another market.

So in the end, 3D is pretty much where it was last time year.  The big movies that everyone was excited about seemingly benefited while the films that were going to tank anyway did so regardless of their 3D enhancements.  If anything, I would argue that the would-be flops (again, I come back to the massacre that was two weekends ago) may have been hurt by their 3D conversions, as the higher ticket prices made audiences less likely to just casually buy a ticket to a random weekend showtime, especially as the crowded late-summer schedule gave theaters less room to give audiences 2D showings of films like Fright Night (which is arguably the worst live-action 3D work of the modern era, rendering the mediocre film nearly unwatchable).  Studios should arguably be careful about what films they choose to 'go 3D', as it may only be a benefit to films that audiences were already enticed by.  We should no longer expect the 65-80% 3D opening weekends that greeted Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.  The 40-45% 3D debuts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II and The Smurfs (another film that did over 2/3 of its  business, $381 million so-far, overseas) are pretty much the new status quo.

I do think we may be seeing an end to the '3D for the sake of 3D' fad in the near future, especially when it comes to smaller pictures that obviously do not benefit from the added ticket-price bump.  This fall will be interesting to watch, as there are several pictures (Shark Night, The Three Musketeers, The Darkest Hour) that are just the kind of 'why bother?' 3D films that have been tanking.  If those films flop, 3D may once again return to being a somewhat rarer thing, perhaps an optional supplement for the very biggest pictures on a studio's annual slate.  There is no harm in that, as long as, I must repeat again, audiences have the option to go 2D at their convenience.  So 3D has not killed the movie going experience, mainly because studios were smart enough to offer 2D theaters for the bigger films.  And, overseas, 3D has given a massive boost to the very biggest blockbusters while making an apparent dent in piracy.  The story of 3D is an ongoing one, and it will be ever-fascinating to see where it goes from here (especially with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg jumping into the game this holiday season).  But for now, as always, it's about the movies themselves, not whether or not you have to wear the glasses.

Scott Mendelson      

1 comment:

Jsprouse said...

Interesting post, as always. I was just thinking that it might also be interesting to see how the value of the Euro has affected overseas grosses over time. At least today, between the 3D price bump and the 45% difference between Euros and Dollars, a 3D ticket in Europe could be as much as double the dollar value of a 2D ticket in the US. If that's true, then studios are smart to treat the US as "just another market"... at least while the value of the Euro is so high.


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