In the run-up to "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," many of those associated with the film tied its fortunes to the overall fortunes of 3-D. Paramount executives privately said this would be a test for how much consumers like the technology, which is used to unusually splashy and in-your-face effect in the robot threequel.
Director Michael Bay even sent out letters imploring viewers to see his film in 3-D, and asked projectionists not to skimp on bulb quality. "Let's make the audience believe again," he wrote to theater operators.
When it finally opened last weekend, the Shia LaBeouf action vehicle seemed to provide an affirmative answer to those who question the z-axis's future. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" took in 60% of its receipts in 3-D in this country and 70% internationally. Those figures offered a sharp contrast to 3-D filmgoing of some other recent movies ("Green Lantern" collected just 45% of its receipts from 3-D locations, for example) and prompted both pundits and Paramount to proclaim an, ahem, bright spot for the format.
Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, acknowledged the recent domestic backlash against the technology but said "Transformers" had overcome it. "In the U.S., we had to win a lot of people back to 3-D," he told my colleague Amy Kaufman.
The totals indeed suggest that an appetite for 3-D hasn't completely evaporated. But there are also a number of factors that argue that 3-D may still not be nearly as healthy as this weekend’s numbers imply. Here's a quick rundown on why skepticism may still be in order.
--The 60% figure is a percentage of receipts, not admissions. And 3-D tickets cost an average of about 45% more than 2-D tickets do. So while the percentage suggests a heavy skew toward 3-D, the actual number of Americans who chose to see "Transformers" in 3-D compared to 2-D is roughly even.
--The figures don't take into account how many theaters were showing the movie in 2-D in the first place, a decidedly shrinking number (given that more theaters are converting to 3-D and studios are pushing theaters for as many 3-D screenings as possible). So there's no way to know from the percentages how many filmgoers actually wanted to see it in 3-D -- and how many preferred 2-D but weren't given the chance.
--These numbers speak only to how people chose to see the movie, not what they thought of it once they did. A sizable number of filmgoers may have come to see 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in 3-D. But the measure of the format's long-term popularity is not box office but the post-screening grading system CinemaScore. And CinemaScore doesn't break down grades by format, so there's no concrete way of demonstrating whether all the people who came to see it in 3-D actually enjoyed the experience more than their 2-D-viewing counterparts.
--Even if they did enjoy it, "Transformers" is a movie that Michael Bay took the time to conceive of and shoot in 3-D, and with the top-line cameras developed by James Cameron ("Avatar") to boot. Not every filmmaker has shown that commitment (and in any event, not every filmmaker has the budget to do so). Which potentially makes this win for the format more of a one-off than a trend.
Photo: A scene from "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." Credit: Paramount