Here to Stay: Industry experts discuss the many dimensions of 3D

Features
Technology

Whatever you may think of 3D, you must admit this: It’s persistent. Throughout the history of movies, 3D—under different names and using different approaches—has been a part of the theatrical experience. Just when it seems to have disappeared, it resurfaces—reinvented, repackaged, with a renewed sense of energy and a restored sense of life.

It began in the 1890s when British inventor William Friese-Greene filed a patent for a 3D film process. Thirty years later, in 1922, the first theatrical 3D movie, The Power of Love, was shown in red/green anaglyph in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel Theatre. Other systems followed. In 1936, before founding Polaroid, Edwin Land demonstrated the first use of polarizing filters for 3D photography on a silver screen.

The 1950s were a golden era of 3D movies, beginning with the first color stereoscopic feature Bwana Devil, shot in Natural Vision. And then along came 3D westerns and musicals, sci-fi epics and horror films as the major studios got involved. A young Elmer Bernstein composed the score for the 3D film Robot Monster.

What really pumped new life into this enduring concept was the introduction of digital technology. Today, there are more than 17,000 screens equipped for 3D in the U.S., and another 33,000 around the world. The vast majority of those 50,000 systems are in theatres.

RealD is the dominant major player, followed by Dolby. Here, senior leaders from both companies are joined by two major exhibitors to discuss the state of 3D today.

Travis Reid (Chief Operating Officer and President, Worldwide Cinema, RealD): I lived through the time when 3D meant exploitation and effects that were “coming at ya.” Back then, 3D was cumbersome and difficult; it was nowhere near the caliber that digital presentations in 3D today provide.

Michael Kennedy (Executive Vice President, Filmed Entertainment, Cineplex): The problem was 35mm film; if the film broke, both prints had to be put back together exactly alike—with scissors and tape. Then sometimes the two projectors wouldn’t operate at exactly the same speed. And if one frame were off, it would destroy the whole experience. But from the audience perspective, there’s always been a desire to see 3D.

Stuart Bowling (Director, Content and Creative Relations, Dolby Laboratories): 3D has been cyclical in our industry, but digital really re-launched it because it fixed a lot of the problems 3D had before. Since the 1950s there have been waves of revival, but now I think 3D is here to stay.

Sonny Gourley (Senior Vice President, Film, Marcus Theatres): We in exhibition and distribution have made a commitment to it. It ebbs and flows with the quality of the movies, but the only ones who could end it would be the studios.

Reid: From an exhibition standpoint, 3D became much more systematized this time around and it very quickly began to fit well into the operational processes everyone uses to maximize their business.

Kennedy: For us, the rollout of 3D screens coincided precisely with the rollout of digital screens. Our first digital screens were, in fact, 3D screens. Today, we have 1,677 screens across Canada and about 50 percent of them are equipped to show 3D.

Reid: Last year, there were eight billion dollars worth of tickets bought for 3D presentations around the world on a very broad base of product. There are about 35 movies a year available now in 3D and that includes nearly all of the top ten performers.

Bowling: But I think there have been times when we’ve had too much 3D; perhaps it could be spaced out more to keep 3D special—but that’s always a challenge.

Gourley: I think there was a time when we thought that business would be bigger than it is, but then it also hasn’t dropped that much. There’s good and bad 3D, just like there are good and bad movies, but I think the technology continues to improve.

Reid: As 3D has become more mainstream, audiences recognize there are some movies that are more important for them to see in 3D. They know that when they see Gravity or Life of Pior even War for the Planet of the Apes in 3D, it will be a significantly better entertainment experience.

Kennedy:The audience that’s going to see 3D is an event-based audience. They want to see big, spectacular entertainment. Remember the Disney remake of TRON? Everywhere we opened that movie in 3D, over 90 percent of the business we did was for the 3D version. In 2D, it was the lowest-grossing movie in the complex.

Bowling: Content is what drives people into theatres. I think a lot of people are waiting for Avatar 2 because they know they’ll be amazed at how James Cameron uses 3D to take audiences into the next chapter of that franchise. 

Gourley: Depending on the movie, we try to have the number of prints we play—or the amount of seats we allocate—to be one-third 3D, two-thirds 2D. But for “big event” movies, we may up that.

Kennedy: In Canada, when we offer movies in 2D and 3D, about 65 percent of our audience buys tickets for 3D. But that also depends on the movie. For a family movie that appeals to small children, that 65-percent number decreases dramatically.

Gourley: If there’s a message to the studios, it’s probably that we really don’t need all these kids’ movies in 3D. I think that the cost for a family—and the fact that the glasses may fall off the smaller faces of children—are factors that drive down the percentage of business we do in 3D to that audience segment. 

Kennedy: It’s a big investment putting all this equipment in our theatres—and maintaining it to high and consistent standards—but for us, the business has developed as we thought it would.

Reid: We’re proud of the role RealD played in evangelizing 3D, working to make sure that the solutions agreed on were adaptable to every projector choice exhibitors made. For us, branding is a very important part of that, because we partner with our customers; we only make money when 3D tickets are sold. 

Bowling: When Dolby launched 3D back in 2007, it was part of our continuing effort to diversify and reinvent ourselves—aligned with our original intent: to apply technology to improve, enrich and elevate the entertainment experience.

Reid: By starting with a partnership, we were able to tie our success to the industry’s success; we helped to build acceptance for 3D as we built our brand.

Bowling: As 3D developed, we saw a deviation in the marketplace. Exhibitors in North America were focused on a model where they would sell the ticket, hand out the glasses, and the glasses were disposed of. Of course, recycling came later. Internationally, we saw a different mentality. They wanted a technology that involved robust and reusable glasses that had a longer life span, which is the model Dolby brought to the market.

Reid: We’re thrilled with where 3D is and where it’s going. On an international basis, the markets are growing—there are more screens being built. And we’re seeing more indigenous product being converted to 3D. India, which was a late-starter, is producing 3D movies now; China’s domestic product is more often now offered in 3D.

Bowling: Although 3D is growing—and technology has increased sharpness and steadiness—there is still the situation with light levels. Regardless of what technology you’re using, half the light output of the projector suddenly disappears. Then, when you add in filtering, you further diminish the overall light level—and the audience experience.

Kennedy: Obviously, the light levels on 3D are different from those on 2D, but ours are good now; they don’t seem to pose a problem for audiences. Will laser make them better? I suspect it will, but we’ll have to get to the point where the technology comes in at a price everyone can afford.

Reid: We continually work towards improving presentation quality. We’ve developed a new screen, the Ultimate Screen, with very, very small perforations, which creates much better reflectivity. It has imbedded aluminum particles so it preserves the polarization like a silver screen but if you look at it, it’s actually whiter than a white screen.

Bowling: Dolby can project on either a white or silver screen. And the 6p laser we can deliver today is significantly superior to any 3D we’ve delivered before

Gourley:Higher frame rates might also contribute to making 3D brighter, but that’s one that, so far, has been “two steps forward and three steps back.” We see a high-frame-rate movie like The Hobbit and then it’s two or three years before another one.

Bowling: 3D keeps getting better, but we’re still, to a degree, experimenting with how to use it as an artistic device for the future. A good 3D experience is about having a great story—and using 3D to pull the audience into that story. 

Gourley: The audience needs to feel like they are in the middle of the action. It’s not about effects or the shock of having a spear whiz by their heads. The gold standard was Avatar; we felt like we were right there in that environment, it was all around us.

Kennedy: When people talk about a decline in audience appetite for 3D movies, are they talking about 3D or is it the quality of the movies currently being made? Filmmakers need to ask: Do I have a good story with compelling characters—and does 3D add something to that experience? TRON needed to be in 3D; I don’t think Moonlight would have done one cent more if it were in 3D.

Gourley: Here’s an interesting question: How does 3D look from an electric recliner? The answer: It depends on the person. Those who adjust the chair properly love the 3D as they lie back in their lounger; others don’t get the angles right and they don’t enjoy it. It’s something we need to pay attention to.

Kennedy: When you talk about the future, at Cineplex we’re developing strategies around virtual reality. It feels now like 3D did back in 2002, so we’re testing and learning from the technology, trying to figure out when the time is right and the price is attractive, how we’re going to deliver that to our guests. 

Gourley: I think LED screens also are going to be important in the future. They’re too expensive today, but as their costs come down to reality, the question is: What will 3D look like on them? They’re much brighter, and so they may set the light-level standards for 3D for the future.

Bowling: 3D is here and even though it’s a mature technology in some markets and in some aspects, it’s still waiting for that next big thing to enhance the experience—for filmmakers, for studios, for exhibitors, and for audiences—and to take it to the next level of enjoyment.

Reid: Domestically, the screen supply is there; internationally, it’s growing. 3D has really become part of the fabric of the industry. Now the success of 3D depends on the number and release schedule of movies—and the creativity of the filmmakers.

Gourley: If they continue to pay attention to the quality of movies they produce in 3D, if they make more immersive movies with good storylines and believable characters that audiences want to see and are willing to pay the upcharge for, then the future is bright.

Kennedy: But to play that content in ways that maximize our business, we in exhibition need to keep pace. If we make the investment to produce the experience the audience wants, they’ll respond. If they see they’re getting the value, they’ll pay the extra money. And that’s not just true for 3D, it’s true for every aspect of the theatrical experience.