Will 3D save the cinema?

It was the introduction of television in the early 50s that first saw the rise of 3D at the cinema. Box office numbers had rapidly dwindled with small screen entertainment in everyone's home until filmmakers found a way to offer audiences something they couldn't experience in their own front rooms. And it worked. Well, for three years anyway until the public grew bored of the gimmick and moved on to other cinema advances like the triple screen Cinerama and later CinemaScope, IMAX, THX and others and gradually the fear from the industry was assuaged with a steady flow of bums on seats.

Since the advent of the home cinema in the 80s and 90s, though, movie-goer numbers began to fall again and, combined with the wider reach of piracy, a crisis point arrived. So, what is there to save the day once more but the reinvention of 3D although this time with the full weight of Hollywood behind it. So far, the results have looked good with the box office bursting like never before but how long will the boom last this time and will it be enough to sustain what many believe is a dying format?

The recognition of the huge profits that films like the Polar Express can make quickly turned the studio onto 3D ever since 2005 but, beyond the money, the major attraction for Disney et al is that it's an experience that you just can't pirate. That may be true for now while the hardware manufacturers and broadcasters alike struggle to find a standard to which they can all conform but what happens when they crack it? What happens when we can when 3D TV really comes home?

One life line for the cinema is the big screen effect. 3D works much better on a larger frame from which the action can pop. It's just not as immersive on a 22” LCD and it's that quality which the movie theatre provides. But TVs are getting bigger and much more affordable. The picture, resolution and colour are also advancing at an extraordinary rate. Worse still, just because the pirates haven't figured out how to copy 3D yet, it doesn't mean that it won't take long for them to do so, not once 3DTVs and monitors go mainstream too.

Another saviour of the silver screen could be if 3DTV just never catches on. One of the largest barriers between the format and mass acceptance is the glasses. There's a number of problems here and they all boil down to practicality. Will people want to sit there wearing them? Will they want to shell out $100 for a set of LCD shutters and, if they do, are they likely to get them broken or lost?

On the surface, it would seem a victory for the cinema if it just didn't work out but, if people can't be bothered enough with 3D at home then, there's no reason they can be bothered to go the cinema specially to see it either.

The Golden Era of 3D only lasted two good years in the 50s before the public has enough. The new wave has lasted longer already but, looking at box office figures for 2009, the effect appears to be dropping off.

My Bloody Valentine was the first film to be released in both 3D and 2D this year. Cinemas with 3D screens took 6.4 times more money than those without that showed the movie but since that point the effect seems to have tailed off. For the next picture shown in both formats, Coraline, three times more money was pulled in with 3D. Then Monsters vs Aliens brought that down to 2.1 and the last release, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, has seen a 3D factor of just 1.4 and this is also considering that tickets to 3D films are more expensive, so that doesn't even necessarily mean that more people went to see the 3D version. That said, it's money that the cinemas are interested in and the fact remains that 3D is still appearing to make them more.

The average box office earning may have been dragged down by the fact that some of the cinemas that showed those films in 3D actually showed them in 2D as well. The slump could also be down to the fact that more 3D theatres are springing up which could dilute the numbers of those who rush to see films in the more immersive format. Whatever the reason, the figures have dipped and with higher frequency of 3D releases, it could be that the novelty is wearing off once again.

Avatar seems to be the project on which 3D's cinema success appears to hinge. It'll be the first big live action film to use 3D. Doubtless the hype machine alone will ensure box office success but it's the subsequent films which will suffer if it proves to be a flop with those that paid their money to watch it.

If the genre can transcend the gimmick and really use this new dimension of depth to actually enhance the art of story telling rather than just make the audience jump every now and then, then it will probably be here to stay and companies will find a way of making it work in the home. Once that's in place, then at least for now, Hollywood still has its cash cow with their money coming from Blu-ray sales or pay-per-views and audiences once again having no need for trips to the cinema. And once the studios are happy with that, then there'll be no real reason for them to worry about the cinema, leaving movie houses potentially out in the cold come the next big winter.

Perhaps the biggest chains and the grandest screens will have a good bit of time left in them but unless they can pull another rabbit out of the hat, the long term future can only be a place for niche theatres, small cult films and the odd night of novelty nostalgia.

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