As the first quarter of 2011 comes to a grinding close, domestic motion picture ticket sales are down 20% from this time a year ago. Furthermore, 2011’s total box office is projected to be down 22%, to $8.2 billion, as compared to $10.45 billion in 2010. One significant reason for the decline is because major 3D theatrical releases have bombed mightily in 2011. The current trend is forcing the film industry to question if “3D Revolution,” is the natural evolution of cinema, or if it’s just a “quick fix” to entice viewers to the box office in a time where ticket sales are on a steady decline.

Major theater chains gladly welcomed the 3D revolution as a way to avert losses from selling fewer tickets, because it allowed them to hike up the cost of ticket prices. Hence, even though fewer film-goers are attending the box office these days, those who do attend are paying more to see a film. The problem is, filmgoers will only accept sharp hikes in ticket prices for very well made, hip and cutting edge 3-D films. Thus, anything falling short of the “social contract” set between the film studios and the viewing audience will fail miserably.

Here are some notable 3D Bombs that were released in the first quarter of 2011:

Drive Angry (2011) Released on February 25 on 2,290 screens, this $50 million budgeted picture has earned $10.558 million at the domestic box office. The foreign box office isn’t going to save this clunker either, speeding through only $4.5 million more.

I have no idea what Nu Image/Summit Entertainment were thinking when they greenlit, produced and distributed this sad excuse for celluloid, because 3D or not, Drive Angry was destined to become a tax break before it was made.

Mars Needs Moms (2011) Released March 11 on 3,117 screens, Disney’s $150 million 3D animated family space adventure bombed throughout the galaxy, earning only $6.5 million on its opening weekend and totaling $19.152 million in the domestic box office as of March 27th. The picture hasn’t faired much better internationally, earning $7.8 million.

I have nothing against Seth Green, but I wonder if a more notable name would have drawn more people to the box office. Not to say that a more widely recognized actor would have changed the fate of a colossal bust like Mars Likes Moms, but a brilliant actor-to-animated character match can inspire a ridiculously strong box office return. Some of the most notable actor-to-animated character matches include Mike Myers in the Shrek series of films (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010), Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the Toy Story series, (1995, 1999, 2010), Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda (2008) and even Johnny Depp in the recently released Rango (2011).

Sucker Punch (2011) Released March 25, this a*s kicking, $82 million female ensemble action-fantasy film opened on 3,900 screens, earning $19.015 million. While these numbers don’t cry “bust” yet, the picture was beaten up by Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011), which earned $24.4 million on 4,000 screens over the same weekend.

The returns from this upcoming weekend will tell us is Sucker Punch will have staying power at the box office or not, but with its current “B-“ viewers grade, it looks as if this 3D gem may look more like a cubic zirconia. However, in order to be fair, I must state that this picture has not bowed internationally yet, and healthy domestic returns this weekend could change its fate.

Indies In 3D:
Now that we’ve discussed a few of the recent studio based indie films, lets dive into the how the 3D era effects independent films.

Easy On The Eye Is Not Easy
First and foremost, infusing 3D technology into small-budgeted independent films is quite a dangerous proposition, because there’s currently no way that low-cost 3D effects can compete with high-end studio technology. Ever since film-goers were spoiled by the ingenious, game-changing 3D technology behind Avatar (2009), the bar for 3D has been set higher than Heaven’s attic.

Of course, 3D technology will become more affordable to independent filmmakers sooner as opposed to later, as technology is advancing at a faster pace than it did in previous decades. But, as of today, March 29, 2011, 3D infused independent films trying to compete with the “big boys of 3D” will suffer the same fate as me and my 5’4” frame trying to slam dunk over 7’0” Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum; the thud from crashing will be louder than the splash created by trying to do it in the first place.

While I’m not suggesting indie filmmakers shy away from utilizing the latest technology, I am saying that 3D should be reserved for productions that can afford to make their 3D look breathtaking.

Indie 3D May Work In Comedic Situations
Just as Avatar raised the bar for 3D, South Park lowered the bar for animation. Before I go any further, let me just state that I find South Park to be one of the most well-written, socially relevant TV shows of our generation. Simply put, it is pure genius. However, the animation is pretty cookie cutter and remedial, but that style works flawlessly with South Park’s aesthetic feel. Thus, lowbrow 3D could work in an indie film, if and only if the film itself poked fun at how inept the 3D was.

Film Festivals May Be Hesitant To Indie 3D
Remember the days when film festivals would refuse to consider films shot on DV? That time was not too long ago. A similar resistance against indie 3D films may exist amongst film festival programmers today, especially since their screening facilities may not be properly equipped to screen 3D films. Besides, how any festival programmers will be willing or able to screen your film in 3D when they are considering it? Not many.

In closing, these are just a few things to consider about the 3D theatrical era as it develops. While I don’t think 3D films are a five-year fad, I also don’t think they’re a 50 year industry staple, either. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and it’s always interesting to figure out the truth…

Thank you for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday!

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  1. Bwakathaboom says:

    Minor correction, Sucker Punch had announced that they would post convert to 3D but it was eventually dropped. To my knowledge none of the 3D prints made it to theatrical release.

    It’s a tough call. Are the aforementioned films bombs because of 3D or because they were terrible, unmarketable films?

    I think you’re right, I don’t see a lot of festivals programming 3D but I can imagine more 3D specific festivals popping up. Still, it’s not an indie brand. If you’re making a 3D film then you’re aiming for mainstream financial success, not tooling around the festival circuit. They’re different business models.

    • Mark Bell says:

      Sucker Punch was available in my local theater as IMAX, but that’s the not the same, necessarily, as 3D. Maybe that’s where the confusion comes in.

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