Reports of 3D glasses handed out to reporters and movie industry types as they sat down Wednesday, April 27 at Cinema-Con to watch the long-awaited first images of James Cameron’s mega-sequel Avatar, Avatar: The Way Of The Water gave me cold sweats. It brought back memories of a different world for me to go to the cinema, a world I will not return to.
CinemaCon attendees were given 3D glasses to watch the trailer, which contained almost no dialogue. Instead, exhibitors were immersed in regions of the dazzling world of Pandora through panoramic images of the planet’s crystal blue oceans and lakes. https://t.co/KW1DRcEjFC pic.twitter.com/b2ecBHnpfJApril 27, 2022
Cameron took his time for the Avatar sequel. It will be 13 years between movies by the time The Way Of The Water finally released, and it released Avatar into a very different world than we have now.
Netflix existed, but it would be another year before they launched their standalone streaming service and they were still primarily interested in DVDs. Hulu and Prime Video were still in their infancy, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe only had two movies, one of which was The Incredible Hulk. While all of this was going on, the big players in Hollywood were mainly concerned about one thing: how to make as many 3D movies as possible.
Before Avatar, the movies that ended up being released in 3D were the kind that could play in dark museum booths, animal shows, or dinosaur adventures. But, in the months leading up to its release, things started to pick up speed. Two Harry Potter films have been upgraded to include 3D elements and Disney has started shooting 3D animations, with Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs and Up, both made in digital 3D.
The release of Avatar and its nearly $3 billion in box office receipts blew everything up. Cameron’s avatar was immersive and unlike anything you’ve seen before. But most of the 3D technology implemented was for cheap thrills, with pixelated axes and swords flying off the screen, and splashes of water pretending to shower you. The trend also led to other classic movies like Top Gun and Jurassic Park being horribly modernized in 3D, and, in the months following Avatar, much of the commercials leading up to the trailers also required 3D glasses. . It’s one thing to watch movies in 3D, it’s another for advertisers to try to sell you cruises and bank accounts in the format.
It also went beyond the movies. In the UK, Sky has committed a huge sum of money to bring football matches to 3D viewers. Some pub owners, inspired by the sight of Avatar, have poured thousands of dollars into buying the right equipment to show drinkers images of glorious 3D football players.
By the end of 2010, 3D movies had earned Hollywood $6.1 billion alone, or nearly 20% of all of its revenue. 3D screens were quickly installed on every screen, and 37 3D films were released in the United States that year. Some saw technology as a chance to push boundaries, Disney’s bold sequel Tron: Legacy, with its impressive graphics and dizzying Daft Punk soundtrack, and Tim Burton’s showy Alice in Wonderland. were good examples. But the trend was already tapping into, with tiresome horror franchises Saw and Resident Evil and, by the end of that year, even Jackass, all in 3D.
The numbers kept growing and it seemed like every time you logged on to book a movie ticket, you were offered the chance to see just about every movie in 3D. I still have drawers full of 3D glasses because, used to going to the cinema with just your wallet, you always forget to bring them and end up paying £1.50 ($2) each time. Soon they were everywhere, in the dashboard of your car, tossed in bowls with bunches of keys, in coat pockets. Never with you when you really need it.
I found it all baffling at the time, but a friend I knew who worked behind the box office of a Manchester multiplex told me it clearly worked. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he said, “How many people walk in here on a Friday night and just ask me, ‘What do you have in 3D?'”. Apparently they didn’t need details on who was in the movie, what it was about, or even what kind of movie it was. Simply put, just knowing they could put on their 3D glasses was enough to justify the financial investment.
It was this audience that led studios to suddenly ask their directors to convert films shot in 2D to 3D. Louis Letterier, who had just overseen the remake of Clash of the Titans, suddenly found himself forced to convert the film to 3D after the success of Avatar. He made an already bad movie once, with the director describing the process as “…absolutely horrible, 3D. Nothing worked, it was just a gimmick to steal money from the public.
My main complaint with the trend was that it led to poor choices among filmmakers. Action sequences suddenly appeared that looked like the direct result of a studio note to make him sing in 3D. On top of that, the glasses were uncomfortable and gave you a bad headache, especially in longer movies. If the option to watch a 2D movie was presented, I always took it.
Somewhere in the mid-2010s things started to slow down and the number of films sold in 3D declined and Sky pulled its 3D option for sports in 2014. Now it’s back in its place, a product of niche that is best served to hardcore fans with 3D TVs. If you’re about to book a ticket for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you’ll need to find a theater that will show it to you in 3D. Counters no longer have stacks of 3D glasses next to hot dogs and sodas.
This is how things should stay. If Avatar: The Way Of The Water is a box office success – and, given James Cameron’s record with Titanic and Terminator II, you firmly expect it to be – please, producers Hollywood people, don’t get any ideas. Focus on creating blockbusters that keep audiences coming back to theaters through the strengths of their visuals and storytelling. More flying axes. No more headaches. And, for all that’s sacred, no more 3D glasses.