Jeffrey Katzenberg: The Jerry Falwell of 3-D?
Think it would be a great idea to watch "Juno" or "The Kite Runner" or "There Will Be Blood" with 3-D glasses on your head? Do you want to see "Burn After Reading" in 3-D? What about "The Wrestler"? How would the recent hit of the Toronto Film Festival look, with Mickey Rourke tossing big lugs out of the ring and into the audience?
If Jeffrey Katzenberg, the leading evangelist for 3-D has his way, soon we'll all be watching every movie, from "Avatar" to "Atonement," in 3-D. In a much-ballyhooed address that he gave Sunday night to 1,000 delegates at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam, the DreamWorks Animation chief said: "I think in a reasonable period of time, all movies are going to be made in 3-D. When the audience experiences this ... and the filmmakers understand how much greater an experience they can offer their audience and they can have as a filmmaking tool, I think 2-D films are going to be a thing of the past."
Maybe you needed to be wearing 3-D glasses when Katzenberg was preaching this gospel to really get excited about the prospect of seeing every serious drama, dumb teen comedy and thoughtful documentary in 3-D. And in fact, everyone in the Amsterdam audience was wearing 3-D glasses, because they they were watching Katzenberg speaking from DreamWorks' Glendale campus in what was billed as the first transatlantic telecast in high-def digital 3-D. I couldn't help but wonder if Katzenberg lobbed a few balls at the camera just to give everyone a snazzy 3-D effect in the middle of his speech, perhaps right before he said with a straight face that "people are going to own their own glasses -- I think from a fashion standpoint and a coolness standpoint, people will want to have their own glasses." Who knows, maybe Ray-Ban is working on a test pair of 3-D sunglasses already.
All I can say is -- God help us! I'm always in favor of embracing new technology, but Katzenberg's 3-D crusade is starting to get out of hand. What's really going on here is pretty obvious. With a costly 3-D movie called "Monsters vs. Aliens" due to hit theaters next March, Katzenberg is growing increasingly nervous that there still aren't enough theaters equipped with digital 3-D equipment to show it. As my colleague John Horn reported in July, Warner Bros. had to hastily retitle its "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D" this summer after the studio realized it couldn't get more than 800 screens to show the film in 3-D. Furious over foot-dragging by theater chain owners, Katzenberg has been trying to exert pressure in every way possible -- including this sort of media jawboning -- to get theater owners to speed up the conversion process.
But there's a larger, more troubling question to answer here? Do we really want every theater equipped with 3-D? Or would that be in many ways bad for serious moviegoers?
So far, the 3-D battle lines have been pretty easy to distinguish. For 3-D to really work as a business model, there need to be roughly 4,000 screens equipped with digital projection equipment, enough to sustain two competing 3-D pictures in the marketplace at the same time. That's a big leap forward from the 1,000 or so 3-D-equipped digital screens available today. But so far theater owners have been reluctant to speed their conversion process. It's a sign of their conservative approach that many of the screens being converted have been in 200- to 300-seat range, not the 700- to 800-seat theaters that fill up with summer blockbuster titles.
Studio advocates such as Katzenberg say theater owners need to embrace innovation, especially when faced with increasing competition from tens of thousands of people each month who've converted their living rooms into home theaters with giant plasma TVs. But theater owners are unwilling to foot the conversion costs themselves, especially because they say that studios like DreamWorks will enjoy enormous savings by sending digital prints over phone lines instead of shipping physical cannisters of film around the country. Theater owners also worry that with only three studios actively in the 3-D business (Dreamworks, Disney and 20th Century Fox, largely through its association with James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar"), there won't be enough product to generate a healthy, year-round 3-D business.
But theater owners, not to mention movie lovers like myself, have another, broader concern. If you do convince audiences that 3-D is the new standard for high-end moviemaking, then what happens to 2-D films? Don't they become damaged goods by comparison? There's plenty of historical precedent for these concerns. In the 1940s and 1950s, black-and-white films were slowly replaced by color as the industry standard, allowing studios to use color as a marketing weapon in an era when movies on TV were only available in black-and-white. But although color was a splashy new technology, it proved to be a disaster for quality cinema, helping kill off an entire generation of film noir classics and B-movie thrillers that have turned out to have been the most memorable work by mid-20th century filmmakers.
The movies we view today as classics are, for the most part, not the much-ballyhooed color films of the era, but such black-and-white gems as Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," Sam Fuller's "Pick Up on South Street," Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place," Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat," Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly" and Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront." I could go on and on -- and on. The point is simple. None of those filmmakers, not to mention a hundred other great low-budget directors, ever made a movie in color that was better than the cheap thrillers they made in black-and white. The new color medium, which seemed to be a step forward in filmmaking technology, was actually a step backward, in large part because the arrival of color completely changed the tone and style of filmmaking. Filmmakers eventually adapted, but years of great work were lost in the process.
That is my real fear about Katzenberg's 3-D crusade. Hollywood is already obsessed with movies whose appeal is rooted in special effects and kinetic kicks -- just take a look at the movies that dominated the marketplace this summer. If 3-D becomes the new industry standard, it will only heighten films' reliance on eye-popping technology over drama, acting and storytelling. Do we really need 3-D to appreciate a great performance by Sean Penn or Robert Downey Jr.? Do we really need 3-D to help us laugh at Tina Fey or Ricky Gervais?
3-D may be a great marketing tool, and Jeffrey Katzenberg may be a silver-tongued salesman, but he's sounding more and more like Robert Preston in "The Music Man," trying to seduce us with visions of 3-D nirvana. What the movies need today is less bombast and cheap thrills, not more.
Photo of Jeffrey Katzenberg by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Janet Leigh in "Touch of Evil" from October Films.