As Disney's new film Tangled is released, we ask if the format is the future of filmmaking, or just another blockbusting gimmick?
3D filmmaking: fad or the future?
On a hot summer's day in June 2007, the entertainment titan Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of DreamWorks Animation, champion of the Shrek franchise, and the man who single-handedly resuscitated the failing Disney movie brand with 1990s children's classics The Lion King and Aladdin, is now holding a crowd of thousands in the palm of his hand.
Katzenberg is on stage in a giant high-modernist auditorium just outside Amsterdam, the 2007 location for the annual Cine-Expo, a weekend-long engagement between European cinema exhibitors and solicitous Hollywood studios. The latter are typically here to tell the former about what to expect in the upcoming release schedules, but Katzenberg is doing something else. He is predicting nothing less than the wholesale reinvention of the entire 100-year-old business of moviemaking itself. He is, in short, predicting the arrival of 3D.
"I can honestly say to you, with every ounce of conviction in my being," he says, fist on podium, staring out at a sea of open-mouthed multiplex owners. "I have seen the future of movies, and this is it."
Katzenberg proceeds to explain how the recent 3D movies that Hollywood has produced, such as Chicken Little, Monster House and The Polar Express, are just the tip of the iceberg. He predicts a gargantuan influx of revenue into the entire industry, a virtuous financial circle that includes everyone from the studios to the cinema exhibitors themselves, who will share the booty from the extra money charged for 3D ticket prices, right down to the designer eye-wear brands who will profit from producing the 3D glasses.
And the movie product itself? It'll be a non-stop flow, he says. He has personally committed to only making DreamWorks cartoons in 3D from 2009 onwards, but he has also been round the major studios and got some big names on board. Spielberg is interested. James Cameron is working on a 3D movie called Avatar. And Katzenberg has also had encouraging noises from none other than Martin Scorsese. "A movie like The Departed would be even more incredible in 3D," he says. "In fact, I'm lobbying Marty to make his next film in 3D. It would benefit him and everyone else enormously!"
Katzenberg's speech is a barnstormer, and whips the gathered exhibitors up into an excitable frenzy. And yet, even then, after the storm subsides, the question in some sceptical minds remains. Scorsese, the master of modern American film? In 3D? The director of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver? Making a movie in a format that peaked in 1952 with Bwana Devil? Unlikely, surely?
Fast-forward three years and it is, indeed, all change. Katzenberg, it seems, was right on the money - in most cases, literally so. For the 3D movie sensation that was James Cameron's Avatar has brought billions into industry coffers - both from box office and DVD revenue ($2.8 billion (Dh10.3bn) at the box office, and $500 million from DVD so far), and from the knock-on effect that it has produced within the business, for example forcing studios to pump out so-called "3D conversions" of movies that weren't originally shot in 3D - such as Clash of the Titans - and encouraging them to commission an entirely new slate of movies to be conceived and produced exclusively in 3D.
Spielberg has finished shooting his 3D blockbuster, Tintin. While Scorsese, as predicted, is in the midst of directing his own 3D debut, Hugo Cabret. The latter is a children's film, set in early 20th-century Paris, about the relationship between a young orphan boy called Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and the French filmmaker Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). It's clearly a talking-point movie. To some, it's a curiosity. But mostly, and more than any other 3D movie since Avatar, it's the one upon which the possible future of 3D as a viable artistic format rests. For, so the argument goes, thanks to Avatar, we now know that 3D can be entertaining. And we know also, thanks to the perfection of the stereoscopic processes (3D Fusion) that Cameron employed in Avatar, that 3D can actually work on screen with credibility (no nausea-inducing headaches that plagued previous versions). But in order for the format to truly survive, and for it to fulfill all of Katzenberg's expectations - for 3D to become the format of all cinema - it needs to work for a film artist such as Scorsese too, someone whose goals have always been higher than just pure entertainment.
Scorsese himself seems to be especially aware of the weight he now carries upon his shoulders. He recently announced, for instance, in praise of 3D: "We live in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D, so why not?" He has claimed also to be an aficionado of early 3D movies such as House of Wax and Dial M for Murder. While he described recently, in a brief interview with the Guardian newspaper, the actual production process on a 3D movie as: "Every shot is rethinking cinema. Rethinking narrative - how to tell a story with a picture… It's literally a Rubik's Cube every time you go out and design a shot, and work out a camera move, or a crane move. But it has a beauty to it also. People look like moving statues. They move like sculpture, as if sculpture is moving in a way. Like dancers."
And yet, there will be a treacherously long wait for Hugo Cabret (it's scheduled to open in winter 2011), and in the meantime there are serious cracks forming in the 3D project.
For one, there are many who simply don't believe the hype, who see through it all as a money-making diversion, and who simply won't contemplate the transition. I interviewed the hipster icon Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) recently on the subject, and he dismissed the changeover completely, saying: "I think 3D is a fad. I'm not saying it out of derision. I just think it's a fad. Just as much as it was a fad in the 1950s." Tellingly, he then added, "And they're kind of killing it by adding it to all these movies that weren't designed in 3D."
The latter point is crucial, and refers to 3D conversions such as The Last Airbender, Pirhana 3D and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. These movies are shot in traditional 2D, but then, with an eye to Avatar-sized incomes, they are hurriedly converted into 3D prints that, when projected, essentially produce a dull soupy image that rarely leaps off the screen, and creates only an effect of high-relief at best, rather than pure 3D.
Behind the scenes, 3D poster boys such as Cameron are furious that the value of their brand is being tarnished by sloppy opportunism. "If you want to release a movie in 3D, go make it in 3D," Cameron announced recently at the Blu-Con event in Berverley Hills. Add to this the growing sense that the novelty of 3D is wearing off, thus making it harder to justify the inflated ticket prices and forcing industry insiders such as 20th Century Fox's senior vice-president for domestic distribution, Chris Aronson, to announce that: "Less-than-perfect 3D, coupled with exorbitant increases in ticket prices has me fearing a consumer pushback."
There are, of course, some major movie events in the 3D calendar that promise to bolster the format's commercial reputation - all high-gloss popcorn sellers such as the upcoming Tron: Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Spielberg's Tintin movie, The Secret of the Unicorn. But, ultimately, until Scorsese's Hugo Cabret arrives, there will remain a nagging doubt that the argument itself is unsettled, that 3D is just another blockbusting gimmick from industrial heavyweights such as Katzenberg, and that, crucially, Tarantino was right all along.