Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The 2011 movie year in box office trends part II: 3D matters, except when it doesn't.

I generally dislike trend pieces. I'm a strong proponent of the idea that how well a film does is specific to the movie itself.  That having been said, there were a handful of interesting patterns that did rear their ugly or not-so ugly heads this year.  These pieces will be more about box office trends and what they may mean for the future.  Without further ado, here we go...

3D matters, except when it doesn't!
I wrote about this back when summer ended, but the last four months of 2011 reiterated the same message: It's the movie!  3D cannot make a would-be flop into a hit.  But where it can (and did) help this year is in getting predestined blockbusters to greater heights of would-be box office glory.  Without 3D, it stands to reason that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would have barely made it past $200 million, that Green Lantern would have struggled to top $100 million, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon would have ended up closer to the first film's $319 million gross.  Thor and Captain America ended up with $175-180 million at least partially due to the 3D ticket-price bump, without which they would have ended up closer to the $130-155 million grosses of Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, and/or The Incredible Hulk.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II broke the opening weekend box office record partially because of the 3D-bump, as even just 43% of opening weekend ticket-buyers making that choice was enough to put it past The Dark Knight's $158 million debut (in just 2D, barring other variables, Harry Potter 7.2 would have debuted at just over $150 million, or good for third place on the list).

More importantly, 3D is still a huge boon to overseas markets, especially where piracy is far more of a problem for big movies than it is here (which, in my opinion, was the real reason for the 3D madness that occurred post-Avatar).  Three films, all in 3D and all grossing far more overseas than they did here, topped $1 billion just this summer.  At least some of the overseas boom for the likes of Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, and The Smurfs (which grossed $562 million worldwide off a $142 million domestic total) came from 3D interest and/or appeal.  Whether it's that international audience are still high on 3D or whether it's harder to find a 2D print, and thus harder to find a decent bootleg where piracy is rampant), is an open question, but 3D has given a solid jolt to foreign markets in the last two years.  If for that reason alone, 3D will be an attractive proposition, especially when films are can be cheaply converted.  $5-15 million in 3D-conversion expenses against potentially however many hundreds of millions of dollars in additional box office, it's almost an act of restraint that more would-be tentpoles didn't indulge this year (and next year, natch).  

And let's not forget the would-be blockbusters that 'did the honorable thing' and went out strictly as 2D.  With $82 million so far, it's hard to argue that The Muppets would have crossed the $100 million mark with the help of that 33% price-bump for 40-50% of its shows in the first few weeks.  Fox scored a surprise smash with Rise of the Planet of the Apes which rode great reviews and solid word of mouth to a $176 million domestic total and $481 million worldwide cume.  Just dealing with domestic box office, adding 3D would have (assuming the film played 40% 3D and 3D tickets charged about 30% more than 2D, which seems a fair underestimate just to be on the safe side) grossed around $200 million, with untold additional fortunes overseas to boot.  Sherlock Holmes: A Game and Shadows and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked were both announced as 3D two years ago, only to be released as 2D just over two weeks ago.  Both films have grossed noticeably less than their respective predecessors, a difference that arguably would have been made up had they gone the 3D-conversion route.  Using the same math as above, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows would be not at $137 million but at $154 million at this point, or almost identical to the first film's $165 million respective 17-day total.  This is not to say that studios were wrong not to pressure certain filmmakers to go the 3D route, but merely to show that it is unfortunately a clear case of sacrificing tens-of-millions of dollars each time out.

As 2012 marches onward, we are seeing a clear push/pull when it comes to using/shooting in 3D for would-be blockbusters.  As noted here and elsewhere, 3D didn't save Conan the Barbarian from being a massive money loser, nor did it save the still-disastrous Green Lantern.  And for that matter, having the best live-action 3D ever won't save Martin Scorsese's Hugo from being a pricey financial stinker (at $140 million, it's at just $57 million worldwide at the moment).  For films that were already going to be smash hits, 3D was merely a cheap way for studios to boost box office comfortable in the knowledge that the protesting fans would be first in line to pre-order their tickets anyway.  And come March 9th, 3D damn-sure will not save Disney from what will likely be a domestic disaster with the $300 million John Carter, although overseas numbers may help avoid total catastrophe.  Marvel is damn-sure going to release The Avengers in 3D, because it needs every dime humanly possible to justify its ambitious-but-risky investment ($175 million would be disappointing, let alone the $155 million gross of The Incredible Hulk).  Men In Black 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man will surely be 3D, because (let's be honest), these are both among the more cynical cash-grabs in recent tentpole-dom (Sony's decision to start charging theaters for Real-D glasses is a possible game-changer, but we'll see what happens in May).  Star Trek 2: Is There Anyway We Can Make This Cheaper Than the First One? will go out 3D because Paramount spent too-damn much money on the first film in pursuit of international box office that never materialized, with no guarantee that the second film will 'pull a Dark Knight'.  Pretty much every animated feature from here-on-out will be 3D because the dreaded 'conversation quality' issue is all-but irrelevant when it comes to animation.

The Dark Knight Rises will go out as 2D and IMAX because Chris Nolan has more power than the ghost of Jack Warner over at the Dream Factory (likewise, whether or not Zack Snyder's Superman: Man of Steel goes out as 3D will be up to Nolan).  IMAX will continue to grow in popularity, but the arguably superior medium will remain somewhat niche-ish until the amount of theaters expands.  The films that have already been planned for 3D, such as The Hobbit parts I and II will continue as such (since they are already filming it in 3D anyway).  But from here on out, expect to see a few constants.  Smaller, sure-to-be-flops anyway films will use the 3D conversion as a desperate 'get as much cash as we can' money grab, while the studios constantly debate on doing 'all 3D, all the time!'.  Because, as conversions get cheaper (and arguably better), the appeal of adding $10 million to your budget for the ability to charge 30-40% more per ticket on 40-60% of your admissions is almost free money.  If Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and/or Titanic hit it big in 3D, we may see a world where the primary use for 3D is animated films and retrofitting the re-release of modern classics (Lord of the Rings, Grease, Top Gun, Jurassic Park, The Princess BrideIndependence Day, etc), which is also 'free money'.

Point being, 3D is here to stay, not because it is artistically preferred or even because it's increasing in popularity, but because it exists as a cheap way to increase profits on new films and create a new demand for older pictures.  So yes, 3D is here to stay, truly for better or for worse.

Scott Mendelson                     

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