When I went to see “Captain America: The First Avenger,” last weekend, I picked a 2D screening. I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with films shot in 2D and exhibited in 3D like “Captain America,” so I figured I’d save a few bucks. But when I arrived at the theater for the film, there was a problem: the management had booked a 2D “Cap” screening into an auditorium configured for 3D. After a few minutes scrambling to change their projector, the theater staff announced that nothing could be done: the film would be shown in 3D and everyone would be given a pair of free 3D glasses.
At that point, the entire sold-out theater of some 400 people burst into boos.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one getting disenchanted with these 2.5D movies. Maybe that’s why I was so interested to read this recent essay on DavidBordwell.net by Kristin Thompson. Her information might not be new, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen box office statistics for 3D movies analyzed so thoroughly and so cogently. All her facts and figures are widely available on sites like Box Office Mojo, but they’re lacking Thompson’s common sense analysis and smart criticism.
I’m particularly impressed with the way Thompson breaks down the percentages of grosses that movies like “Captain America” make from 3D and 2D theaters. She begins by asking a simple but important question: how much money do 3D movies really bring in?
“The basic fact is that the money brought in by a film made in 3D only amounts to the supplement paid by the spectator beyond what he or she would have paid if the film were in 2D. Let’s assume that the supplement is $3 and that a 3D admission costs $12 and a 2D one $9… removing the $3 supplement takes away 25% of the ticket price. So what the 3D process as such really adds to the box-office total is 10% (that’s 25% of 40% [of all tickets sold for a movie available in either 3D and 2D]). To put it another way, $9 of the $12 for the ticket is just for the film qua film, the rest is for its being in 3D.”
A great point that no one ever mentions. When we say “This movie made $35 million dollars at its 3D theaters,” we’re not considering the fact that 75% of the $35 million customers paid was for the film itself, with just the remaining 25% relating to the upcharge of 3D. And here’s one more great point:
“Consider the opening weekend of ‘Captain America,’ which grossed $65.7 million, 40% of which came from theaters equipped with 3D. But it’s really 10% by my reasoning, so it’s not $26.3 million that 3D generated, but $6.57 million. Assuming further that it costs about $30 million to make a film in 3D or convert it to 3D in post-production, ‘Captain America’ would have to run in the U.S. market for around four weeks with no decline in attendance to break even on 3D. But most films decline on their second weekend, unless they open in more theaters or have terrific word of mouth. Even “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which had lots of repeat business, declined 19% on its second weekend.”
Thompson’s math might not be perfect; I think $30 million is the generally reported cost to shoot a movie in 3D like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Converting a 2D movie like “Captain America” to 3D in post-production is significantly less expensive. Still Thompson’s reasoning is sound: if only 10% of a film’s grosses can be set aside to offset the cost of 3D, a movie earning just 40% of its money from 3D screens would have to be an enormous box office hit to justify its production or conversion in the format. It’s sort of an economies of scale issue: if you’ve got a “Transformers” or a “Pirates of the Caribbean,” movies that routinely gross near a billion dollars worldwide, the 3D pays for itself and more. But if you’ve got a smaller film with a chillier box office forecast — something on par with, say, “The Green Hornet” or “Green Lantern” — you face an uphill battle returning your investment in 3D. That goes for movie theaters too — if movies like “Captain America” begin to earn more money on 2D screens than on 3D screens — even though people are paying more per ticket for 3D — you could quickly begin to see exhibitors switch back to 2D to improve their revenues.
If these trends in 3D attendance continue, I think we may (finally) see fewer 3D titles, particularly in that middle-tier of medium budgeted event movies. At least I hope so.