Did Covid-19 kill the 3D cinema or is the format just a con?

With a steady annual decline in box office shares, the pandemic could be the final nail in the coffin for the format

Cosplayers watches the film "Black Panther" in 3D which featuring Oscar-winning Mexico born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o during Movie Jabber’s Black Panther Cosplay Screening in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 14, 2018.
Black Panther is a Superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character featured the first black superhero as Black Panther in advanced fictional African nation. Nyong’o who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 12 Years a Slave in 2014, plays a major role as a female warrior in the film.  / AFP PHOTO / Yasuyoshi CHIBA

It has undoubtedly been a tough couple of years for cinemas, with widespread global closures caused by the pandemic. However, as theatres around the world slowly begin to return to something approaching normal service, it looks like there could be one long-term casualty of Covid-19: the 3D film.

The market for 3D has been in decline for several years. The format peaked in the wake of James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar in 2009 with the 3D version accounting for 72 per cent or $1.35 billion of its total gross, according to boxofficemojo.com.

It has, however, been mostly downhill since, with a steady annual decline in 3D box office share every single year since 2010, and declining receipts too since 2016’s $8.8bn peak, according to the American Motion Picture Association's annual Theme report.

The reason for that could be that when Avatar smashed every record, studios and cinemas alike saw a cash cow. They couldn’t wait to jump on the bandwagon, pushing out hastily made 3D movies and bumping up the ticket price. The problem was that while Avatar was genuinely unique, most of the films that came in its wake were second-rate afterthoughts. Audiences quickly felt ripped off, and the script for the format's demise was already written.

By 2021’s Theme report, the global 3D box office made up only 6 per cent of the previous year’s receipts. Of course, 2020 wasn’t a regular year, but in 2019, the last year when cinemas were operating normally pre-Covid, the figure was already down to 15 per cent. In 2019, 3D receipts of $6.5 billion, meanwhile, were below 2010 levels, despite a trend through most of the last decade of more 3D versions of films being released, more 3D screens opening up, and overall box office receipts rising.

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The key thing you need to know about 3D cinema is it's as old as cinema, and there's a reason why it's failed on so many different occasions
Mark Kermode, movie critic

It’s not only the box office numbers that have made grim reading for 3D enthusiasts recently. By 2016, every major TV manufacturer had stopped producing 3D TVs. The same year, speaking at a panel at CineEurope, Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks Animation, announced: “We blew it on 3D. It was a game-changing opportunity for the industry.”

The following year, IMAX, which had been a key player in popularising 3D with its giant screens, announced it would now be focusing on 2D. Greg Foster, chief executive of IMAX Entertainment, told investors: “It’s apparent that the demand for 2D is starting to exceed that of 3D, and we’ll be looking to keep more of our films in 2D as a result.”

Following the wide 2021 release of Black Widow in IMAX cinemas with no 3D option – the first Marvel film since 2011’s Iron Man II to release without IMAX 3D – the company issued a statement saying that it remained interested in screening 3D IMAX movies when the “important mix of filmmaker intent and audience demand is there”. The implication would seem to be that currently it isn’t.

This image released by Disney/Marvel Studios' shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Black Widow." The Walt Disney Co. on Friday overhauled its release schedule, moving the dates of half a dozen Marvel movies. “Black Widow,” which had been set to kick off the summer movie season, will now open Nov. 6. (Marvel Studios/Disney via AP)

So can we officially pronounce 3D dead? Perhaps not just yet.

Jonathan Sabin, the head of 3D conversion specialists Variety Films and director of the documentary 3D Town, insists we shouldn’t read too much into the end of 3D TV manufacture. “New 3D projectors continue to be made every year, the latest ones with 4K and HDR. Traditional flat panel TVs with 3D functionality have been discontinued by most manufacturers, but if you count projectors, 3D TVs have never stopped being made.”

The continued existence of projectors is all very well, but if the studios aren’t releasing films to show with them, it returns to the realms of gimmick.

Filmmaker and Think in 3D author Clyde De Souza is one of the UAE’s leading advocates of 3D, and was a key technical adviser at twofour54 Abu Dhabi’s 3D Lab, which opened in 2011, although no longer operational.

He concedes that in cinemas 3D is struggling, a situation undoubtedly worsened by Covid and illustrated by the fact that of the many exhibitors The National reached out to for this story across the Middle East, Europe and the US, not a single one was prepared to go on the record about the current state of the 3D box office.

De Souza also admits that 3D TVs are now a part of history, but he hasn’t given up on the platform.

“I feel that the future is going to be VR eyewear,” he explains. “There’s a new one, the HTC Vive Flow, which is just like a pair of glasses, not those big, bulky VR headsets. Apple and Google have their own versions on the way too. It’s just like being in an IMAX 3D, but you can put it in your pocket.

"I can’t understand why over-the-top streamers like Netflix and Disney aren’t putting 3D versions of their content out there for users of these devices, but I think there’s definite potential there.”

The VR headset is surely a somewhat different experience to that of a cinema, however. It’s a solitary affair, unlike the communal experience of sharing a film with others in a darkened room.

It’s been said before, usually about every 30 years after 3D cinema briefly surges in popularity, as it did in the 1920s, '50s and '80s, but it looks right now like 3D in cinemas could be headed for the exit. The format was already divisive with cumbersome glasses, inflated prices, oft-reported headaches and unsuitability for those with certain sight problems. A rush to go back to the format after an 18-month break seems unlikely, particularly if reusable glasses in post-pandemic cinemas are a possibility.

It will almost certainly live on through personal VR or gaming devices. Perhaps Cameron could even ride in and save the genre in cinemas with his eventual Avatar sequel, currently slated for December 2022 after numerous delays.

“The key thing you need to know about 3D cinema is it's as old as cinema, and there's a reason why it's failed on so many different occasions," movie critic Mark Kermode says. "If you look at other innovations in cinema [and say] ‘Oh, it's like sound, it's like colour.’ No it isn't.

"On three, four separate occasions, 3D was foisted on the public and it didn't work, and the reason it didn't work was not that it wasn't technologically good enough," he says.

“The fact of the matter is that when you watch a 3D movie, you aren't seeing in 3D. You never, in the real world, see like that.

"Have you ever seen a film that you thought was really great, but wished it was in 3D? 3D doesn't work. The reason is that, in the end, it's a con."

Updated: November 25th 2021, 7:04 AM