We Live In A 3-d World – Or Do We?

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“We live in a three-dimensional world,” James Cameron admonished Hollywood a few weeks ago on the opening of Life of Pi. Calling Ang Lee’s film some of the best use of 3-D since his own Avatar (2009), Cameron was trying to push the movie industry – as he has been for some time – toward a more full-bore commitment to 3-D filmmaking. The approximately 40 3-D titles slated for release in 2013, evidently, still represents only a chicken-hearted effort in Cameron’s eyes.

What Cameron has been hoping for with Pi is that the movie shows 3-D to be more than a gimmick for action flicks like The Avengers; that 3-D can be used eloquently in movies that aren’t about pyrotechnics and superheroes sailing through the air, that it isn’t just for making the fanboys chuckle with glee as they duck 3-D ejecta. Pi, in Lee’s more than capable hands, uses 3-D to draw people deeper into a reflective, even spiritual movie, and Hollywood is wearing blinders if they don’t see the greater dramatic possibilities for applying the process.

Well, that’s his thesis. It’s doubtful Pi is going to clinch that argument. If anything, Pi may be the pistol Cameron shoots himself and his case in the foot with.

It’s a question of math. Pi cost about $120 million. The rule of thumb is that a film needs to gross two-three times its budget to reach breakeven, which puts the level at which 20th Century Fox’s accountants can breathe easy on Pi at somewhere between $240-360 million.

Life of Pi’s domestic gross after five weeks of release is a hair over $76 million.

To be fair, it’s done quite well overseas, with its total worldwide take now standing at $235.8 million. That, however, doesn’t take into account overseas marketing costs. Still, the movie has held remarkably steady in the marketplace with its week-to-week falloff on the domestic scene averaging just 36% (want a comparison? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey dropped almost 57% from Week 1 to Week 2, while The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 has averaged a week-to-week drop of 54%).

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But, as I say, it’s a question of math, and the math says that while Pi will probably hit breakeven – well, crawl to it, actually — it’s hardly shown itself to be a home run.

Here’s some more math: Lee himself estimates that about a quarter of the budget was due to the added costs of shooting in 3-D. Without it, breakeven could have been as low as $180 million meaning that, by now, a non-3-D Pi would’ve been in the black.

Yeah, Bill, but would that many people have come if the movie hadn’t been in 3-D?

Good question.

The track record for 3-D is a checkered one. It’s sure as hell boosted the bottom line on movies like The Avengers, Brave, The Amazing Spider-Man. It doesn’t look like it helped clunkers like Underworld: Awakening, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Dredd, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or Piranha 3DD whose domestic gross didn’t even break $400,000 (that’s right: four hundred thousand bucks).

Probably most telling, despite universally glowing reviews, 3-D couldn’t get people in to see the Tim Burton animated delight, Frankenweenie, while the generally panned 3-D toon Hotel Transylvania has already got Sony talking sequel.

Conclusion: if people’re gonna go, they’re gonna go, and if they ain’t gonna go, they ain’t gonna go, 3-D be 3-damned.

Funny thing: Cameron’s already been burned once trying to make this case. Let’s flashback to last year and see if you remember this scenario:

A 3-D feature based on an acclaimed literary work, a master filmmaker at the helm, universal critical acclaim and a bucketful of Oscar nods to boot, and there’s Cameron calling the flick – I kid you not – the best use of 3-D since his own Avatar. Remember it?

It was Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The movie’s worldwide gross was $185.8 million. The production tab was $156 million (putting breakeven north of $300 million at a minimum) meaning that even after you roll in DVD and Netflix sales, TV rights, etc., Paramount still comes up a loser.

Pi may offer an improvement on that but not a definitive rebuke.

But this leads to a bigger question.

Here’s Cameron – yet again – beating the drums for 3-D. At the same time, there’s Peter Jackson calling his 48 frames-per-second 3-D he used in The Hobbit the salvation of the movie business. And if you don’t want to see these comin’-at-ya flicks in the theater, you can get yourself a 60-inch flat screen TV and watch them in all their head-ducking, stereophonic, multi-dimensional glory at home.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing young audience spending most of their viewing time in front of dinky screens with dinkier speakers, and it gets me wondering if the hi-tech boys aren’t running a helluva race flat-out but in the wrong direction?

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Laptops are getting smaller, phone video screens are getting bigger, and Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet – with an 8.9 inch screen – is aimed at eating into the movie-streaming market that used to belong to the laptop.

So the question I ask is: what’s the point of adding twenty, thirty, forty million to your production budget to make your movie visually spectacular in a state-of-the-visual-arts way just so somebody can watch it on his/her 4-inch iphone screen while they’re waiting for the bus?

The visual sensibility may be changing in a way that state-of-the-art big screen moviemaking doesn’t address. And it’s not the first time.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, two technologies were battling it out for supremacy in the new home video market: Betamax and VHS. Beta provided the better picture, but you could cram more stuff on a VHS tape (two hours vs. Beta’s 60 minutes). If you were willing to record at the slowest of VHS’ three rates and tolerate the crappy video and audio quality that went with it, you could get six hours of programming on a single tape.

That was the choice: better picture and sound, or six ugly hours of movies cribbed off HBO.

The market went to the six ugly hours.

And don’t even get me started on what happened to the poor LaserDisc which provided signal and audio quality superior to both…but you couldn’t record at all.

“The best” is not always what people want, otherwise more people would be eating French pastry with their coffee instead of Dunkin Donuts.

I don’t pretend to know where this is going. The multi-platform arena is nothing short of chaotic. New devices get cannonballed into the market with bewildering frequency offering an ever-expanding range of apps for a market that seems to have an insatiable appetite for the next new thing, eager to toss away yesterday’s gizmo for today’s even before they know whether it offers any practical advantage over what they just tossed. One evolutionary phase has barely begun before it gets steamrolled over by another.

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The sensibility that gizmo-makers are chasing seems, to an old pre-millennial like me, to be just as chaotic, just as ever-changing as it gloms on to each new thing. Traditional TV and movie programming don’t have the same hold on their attention as they did on that of their parents.

James Cameron is easily one of Hollywood’s great tech geeks, second to none in his belief in the value of what the new can bring to the movies. But just in the fact that he’s still talking in terms of movies, I’m wondering if Cameron the tech pioneer isn’t something of a dinosaur himself.

- Bill Mesce

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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