How Long Can 3D Films Remain Commercially Sustainable?

Leanne Miller investigates the numbers behind 3D and suggests that, actually, the studios might need to start paying more attention to them sometime soon.

It is a subject that divides both casual cinemagoers and hardened movie fans and causes arguments in ticket queues all over the world. But whether you love it or hate it, studios remain keen to drive up revenues with films packaged in 3D – but how long can it last?

According to a report published in August that looked at cinema admissions across the UK in the first half of the year, the early signs seem to show that the general public are beginning to tire of 3D. While overall admissions for the period were ever so slightly up from 80.1 million to 80.7 million on the same period in 2010, the increase reported by the CAA/BFI seemed to be in conflict with data from Rentrak EDI.

This report showed that in the period ending June 2011, box office revenues across the UK and Ireland dropped by around 3.3 per cent which Screen Digest explained 'can be directly traced to fewer tickets sold to higher priced 3D movies'. This, it continued, was despite a rise in the number of 3D titles that had been released in the period. All of which begs the question, why is Hollywood bothering to force feed us low quality, post-converted 3D movies at extra cost to everyone - including themselves - if they aren’t wanted?

As far back as September 2010, on the release of Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D, respected film journalist, writer and podcaster Mark Kermode, spoke about the technology and how it does nothing for the medium. In a video post he created for his blog, Kermode said that not only did he 'forget' that he was watching Toy Story 3 in 3D when he first saw it, he discovered that, when challenged to compare it to the 2D version, he found it to be a much better experience. 'The image is clearer, the image is brighter – and I’m not alienated by those glasses'.

And he isn’t the only one, respected film news commentators and bloggers from across the web have asked the same questions. Are people tired of 3D? Is this all being forced on us? Why should we pay extra for the privilege of sitting in a darkened room trying to watch a film while effectively wearing sunglasses?

It is worth noting however that many people feel that the medium has been poorly executed so far and is yet to reach its full potential. As 2011 drew to a close we saw the release of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first foray in to the world of 3D, which impressed both fans and critics in equal measure, making the film a commercial success on the back of its inflated, 3D-loaded, ticket prices. During the filming process Scorsese seemed keen to push boundaries and was less concerned about the existing rules that most of Hollywood studios have strictly adhered to when producing 3D films. Other directors should perhaps take note and realise that the technology can only be successful when it is used to add extra degrees of creativity to already unique storytelling, instead of packaged in as an afterthought.

However, if Hollywood continues to see 3D as a way to prop up their profit margins – regardless of what they are spending on doing so – then who is to say when they will listen to any of these arguments? Increasingly, blockbusters are being advertised with the added caveat of 2D being available in ‘selected’ theatres, with films like The Green Hornet proving especially difficult to find in this format, raising the question 'who benefits from the addition of 3D to these films?'. It certainly doesn't seem to be the studios. The best any of us can do is vote with our cash wherever possible and hope that the industry starts to listen.

Leanne Miller is a regular contributor to entertainment site She is a gamer, a movie enthusiast and a firm believer that every argument can be resolved using Wikipedia. You can also follow her on twitter @playittoday.


  1. I have a long and rambling theory that can boiled down to this: Hollywood is canabalising its own product. Higher than normal prices means less people, less people means less money (unless we're talking about blockbusters that have a large reach). I personally don't watch 3D (one of the main reasons i missed out on Hugo, wasn't anywhere near me in its 2d form).

    With filmmakers moving to digital (production and exhibition) I think 3D is here to stay but wearing glasses ove glasses is awkward, iMAX is a better alternative. Nice article.

    1. It does seem that, largely, this inflated ticket price is no longer producing the result Hollywood wanted, apart from in the odd case where the material is unique enough to warrant extra people to splash out (i.e; Hugo's decent result).

      The forumla seems to be;

      y number of people x regular price = result a
      (y number of people - people not willing to pay increased price) x increased price = result a

      Which does, increasingly, make 3D a bit of a suspect model for studios to adopt.

  2. I'm curious for Hugo, but until now the only great 3D-experience I've had was Avatar.
    It was mind-blowing in 3D. But all the other ones were just as good in 2D.

    1. I agree. I enjoyed TINTIN in 3D but not to the point that, retrospectively, I would have minded seeing it in 2D. I missed HUGO in 3D and I regret that, based on what everyone's said. I would have liked to find out for myself if the effects are used as well as they were in AVATAR.