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Despite popularity of 3D films at the Cannes Film Festival, there are growing doubts as to whether 3D blockbusters can maintain Hollywood's momentum. Above, posters of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Ian Langsdon / EPA
Despite popularity of 3D films at the Cannes Film Festival, there are growing doubts as to whether 3D blockbusters can maintain Hollywood's momentum. Above, posters of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Ian Langsdon / EPA

3D or not 3D, that is the question

There are growing doubts as to whether 3D blockbusters can save Hollywood.

Hollywood is making a multibillion-dollar gamble on 3D in the hope it can keep audiences coming into cinemas.

But, despite a handful of box-office hits and unprecedented interest in 3D at the Cannes Film Festival this week, there are growing doubts whether 3D blockbusters can maintain Hollywood's momentum.

Film studios are concerned today's advanced video technology means traditional cinema-going audiences could increasingly turn to watching movies in the comfort of their own homes, rather than pay high prices for cinema tickets, particularly the young audiences who fill movie theatres in the US.

They can even download new films free if they use a file-sharing website. To tempt audiences away from the comfort of their couch, Hollywood is leaning heavily on 3D, a technology dating back to the 1950s.

"The real challenge for Hollywood is the life cycle after the cinema, and specifically the collapse in DVD-Blu-ray sales, and piracy," says Tim Renowden, an analyst at the research company Ovum.

"There has been mixed success for 3D films at the box office, but the attraction of higher ticket prices is driving investment in 3D-film production."

At first glance, the box office returns on 3D blockbusters appear impressive. Thor, released by Paramount Studios on May 6, netted about US$67 million (Dh246m) in its opening weekend. Alice in Wonderland, another film released in 3D in March last year, went on to take more than $1 billion.

The Cannes Film Festival is hosting at least 50 3D screenings, a 50 per cent leap from last year, and has 14 3D-enabled screens, four more than last year.

Thor is already estimated to have made Paramount $100m after recouping its $150m production budget. The eponymous main character is loosely based on the pagan Norse god of thunder but comes from the same stable as films about characters from Marvel comics such as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Spider Man, Daredevil and the X-Men.

Seen in this context, Thor's box-office success this month is less about 3D and more about Hollywood mining the rich vein of characters from 1960s comics. As the original artwork already resembles movie story boards, the highly popular Marvel action heroes have made an easy transition to the big screen.

Iron Man 2 outperformed Thor by almost 100 per cent on its first weekend, taking more than $128m. The fact that Iron Man 2, released in May last year, was not shot in 3D did not hamper its success at the box office in any way.

Shooting in 3D can also lead to major problems. Unlike films such as 2009's 3D blockbuster Avatar, Iron Man 2 contains live, rather than animated, action. Animated action is initially generated on a computer and can be easily transformed into 3D. Film of live actors can be technically more problematic.

Many industry insiders still see 3D cinema as a fad and believe Hollywood is making a mistake in trying to produce a 3D version of every major release in an attempt to pump-up box office revenues.

"It's important to remember that a bad film in 3D is still a bad film, and audiences are starting to be more discerning about which 3D films to see, as the novelty of 3D cinema starts to wear off," says Mr Renowden.

"For 3D to succeed, studios need to consider 3D as an extra tool that can enhance a good film, rather than an end in itself that can save a weak film."

But Hollywood's business strategy of concentrating mainly on special-effects movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars has created a growing global gap in the film industry market.

This may soon start to be filled by more sophisticated movies from outside the US. Bernardo Bertolucci, the veteran Italian director, and German auteurs Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog are now rumoured to be planning 3D films.

Claimed to be the first Middle East 3D film, My Last Valentine in Beirut, shot by the Lebanese director Salim el Turk, is showing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is aimed at a more sophisticated cinema audience than the recent crop of Hollywood action blockbusters and deals with the stark reality of the life of a prostitute.

Still, as Hollywood gambles on 3D, it may find audiences are increasingly reluctant to pay the premium price - and that could cost the US industry dear.

business@thenational.ae

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