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Why Are 3D Movies Still a Thing?

It’s all about feeding the blockbuster beast.
Audience wearing 3D glasses in 1951. Image: National Archives UK via Wikimedia

Critics have been pronouncing 3D movies dead for several years now. As the novelty wears off, many of these "enhanced" films are gimmicky at best and pointless headache-inducing garbage at worst. Yet Hollywood's still pumping them out at a steady clip. Why won't 3D movies actually die?

Like so many things, you can almost boil the answer down to a single word. Money, of course!

3D has been touted as the film industry's savior as things like Netflix and your comfortable living room lead to dwindling box office sales. By releasing (or re-releasing) a film in 3D, studios can not only draw people to the cinema by pushing a supposedly premium viewing experience, they can also tack on an extra $4 the ticket price to feed the blockbuster beast.


The problem is, 3D is often not a premium viewing experience at all. For many people (myself included) it's a far worse experience than seeing the movie in regular 2D, so now you've paid extra money for two hours of unpleasantness.

To be fair, a lot of people love 3D movies, and some 3D movies are truly an immersive and engaging experience. That's great. But there's also a big chunk of the viewing public that really don't do well with this format. A 2011 survey cited in an eight-year study into the side effects of 3D glasses found only a third of viewers have no trouble, while two-thirds feel some form of discomfort, including 7 percent that report terrible headaches.

This is a good time to make a crucial differentiation. There are two categories of 3D movies appearing in theaters today, and they make a big difference in the quality of the production: "real" 3D films that were shot with stereoscopic cameras and created specifically for 3D viewing (which is notoriously expensive), and "fake" 3D films that tack on the 3D effect in post-production.

In the former camp are films like Avatar and Gravity that are set in visually stunning worlds designed to be experienced on the big screen in an immersive format. Animated films are also uniquely poised to take advantage of the format and can be even better when seen in 3D.

In the latter camp are a lot of superhero or action or horror flicks that are converted to 3D to squeeze an extra buck out of the audience, but for which adding the dimension of depth does very little to improve the experience.


In fact, converting perfectly good films to 3D can make them considerably worse. Action movies have too many fast cuts for the viewer to get a chance to feel immersed in the three-dimensional world, on top of which your eyes are working overtime to keep up so you're more prone to headaches or feeling sick.

A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One found that 3D movie watchers commonly reported visual fatigue like eye pain, headaches, double vision, difficulty focusing and nausea. Plus there are often those cheesy shots thrown in solely to show off the 3D capabilities, like Spiderman flying at the screen and web-slinging toward the audience.

3D conversion also makes the picture darken and the images less sharp, which is not great for already dimly lit horror films. And particularly with low-budget films, poor conversion can create visual inconsistencies and lag, and the tiniest imperfection tends to break the fourth wall. This is bound to improve as the tech advances though; researchers are working on developing high-res glasses-free 3D projectors and television displays that address these problems.

All of this is not lost on most movie fans, but production studios are too busy counting their box office profits to realize or care. Though total ticket sales in North America dropped 15 percent between 2002 and 2013, box office revenue is up, and that's largely because 3D films have helped justify higher ticket prices.

But, while the number of 3D films released has climbed, their share of box office revenue has slowed, and so has audience "take rate"—the amount of people that will opt to see a film in 3D instead of flat. In other words, people seem to be tiring of the fad. Meanwhile, 3D TVs also totally failed to take off with consumers, and there was enough distaste for 3D movies in theaters some enterprising companies made special glasses that knock a 3D movie back to 2D.

Even James Cameron, whose enormous box office-slaying film Avatar kicked off the current 3D craze, has complained that there's too much 3D garbage out there. Films are coming out in 3D that don't need to, and directors often don't have the final say if the studio wants their film released in 3D. Speaking at a technology forum in 2013, Cameron said that using 3D has "become a studio-driven top down process to make money."

If history is any indication, 3D film many never die. The technology was developed in the late 1800s and has existed in some form since the 1920s, and over the last century the fad has cropped up time and again only to slip back into obscurity after failing to take hold in the market.

The first 3D movie boom came in the mid-50s when TV was cutting into cinema sales. Then there was another phase in the early 80s after the technology improved somewhat. That didn't quite last either, but 3D saw a resurgence when the IMAX format came along in 2004. It seems humans have such a thirst to experience cinema the same as natural vision we just can't let the dream of three dimensions die.