Film Fund-amentals: 3-D or Not 3-D

The more things change, the more they seem the same. As the January 12 edition of The New York Times reminded us, Hollywood is in a race for digital 3-D movies in a feverish hope that the new system will beat out bad memories of the headache-inducers of the 1950s.

From what we have seen of the new technology, it is a vast improvement over the old system. For the most part, the movies are still mediocre but the system is great. However, as the Times also points out, where are you going to see them?

Of the 40,000 screens in the US, less than 5 percent are currently equipped to show digital 3-D (this is the Times estimate, which I suspect is a tad low — an industry figure I have seen is closer to 10 percent). Since the basic cost per screen is an estimated $100,000, there will be no rapid increase in the installation of 3-D systems; in the current economy, the ability to fund many innovations will (most likely) be extremely curtailed.

Likewise, the extra cost of tickets for 3-D screenings will also be a problem. Though the price will not necessarily increase to the $25 quoted by the Times, this is not an economy in which any price increase is desirable (no matter what the eye candy). Most likely, the average ticket buyer will view a 3-D presentation as an extremely occasional event (once a year at most).

Which means that Hollywood is currently lining up an extremely expensive slate of 3-D movies to be released to theaters that for the most part do not exist and for an audience that may soon be disinclined to see them. So far, this sounds like business as usual.

The one interesting exception to this may be the 3-D DVD. Since more people are likely to buy new TV sets than they are to go to a 3-D movie (and everybody is more likely to buy or rent a DVD than they are to go to the theaters), there will be more rapid development of an available audience in this market. Again, the current economic situation will drastically slow this expansion, but it is inevitable nonetheless.

Which means that digital 3-D will be an eventual boon to the home market, either through DVDs or internet download. At theaters it will probably just remain a source of headaches.

— Dennis Toth