'Clash of the Titans': Is 3-D about to make movie stars obsolete?
Ever since the astounding grosses for "Avatar" started rolling in, Hollywood has been pretty much going gaga over 3-D. After all, from a business standpoint, what's not to like? At a time when DVD revenues have been plummeting, who would've believed that 3-D would help save the studios' bacon, allowing exhibitors to now charge a $5 (and more) premium on movie tickets, which has generated untold tens of millions of fresh cash on the barrelhead for every major 3-D release.
According to Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman, roughly 52% of the studio's box-office take for this weekend's "Clash of the Titans" was from 3-D ticket sales. An even bigger piece of 20th Century Fox's haul from "Avatar" -- some say as much as 80% -- came from theaters with 3-D screens. And more than a third of Disney's revenue from "Alice in Wonderland" was also attributable to the higher prices charged by theaters with 3-D screens. According to industry marketers, the 3-D ticket price premium gave a huge boost to "Clash of the Titans' " $61.4-million box-office take, which would've been closer to a mediocre $41.4 million if the film was only playing in 2-D.
The film, which was retrofitted with 3-D at the last minute, earned a forgettable 30 rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and inspired my colleague Kenny Turan to write that "Clash of the Titans" could be "the first film to actually be made worse by being in 3-D." But as it turns out, the tech geeks were even more unhappy than the highbrow critics. As Den of Geek's Duncan Bowles put it in his review: "I have never been so insulted by such a criminal intent to rob the public," adding that "the result is shocking. Please, please if you go and see 'Clash of the Titans,' watch it in 2-D before this whole mess gets out of hand."
Unfortunately, this mess is already out of hand. Or as Fellman told my colleague Joe Flint, crowing about "Titans' " performance at the ticket windows: "If there was a battle out there, victory is ours." Warners recently announced that it was releasing nine films in 3-D next year, with other studios rolling out 3-D releases nearly as fast. The studios clearly believe that 3-D is such a box-office bonanza that even a few miserable quickie conversions like "Clash of the Titans" won't be enough to kill the golden goose.
The real test will come with next weekend's numbers. "Titans" earned a B grade from CinemaScore, which is more like the equivalent of a C, since CinemaScore grades are culled from the hard-core fans who show up on opening night -- in other words, the people most likely to enjoy the film. The film's modest grade makes it likely that "Titans" won't hold up especially well in its second weekend, probably dropping as much as 60% as the lukewarm buzz about the film's anemic 3-D effects circulates. But it will clearly take more than one big second-weekend drop to have a chilling effect on Hollywood's 3-D mania.
From the studio standpoint, there's too much easy money to be made. I suspect studio chiefs are calculating that, as with any new format, fans will be enthusiastic buyers in the early stages of the cycle, just as they were with CDs, DVDs and iPods. In fact, when the New York Times' David Pogue was evaluating the online chatter about the newly released iPad, he noted a pattern to the assessments that could just as easily apply to 3-D moviegoers: "The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people."
But I can pretty safely predict who are the real haters when it comes to 3-D movies: movie stars. If there was ever a new technology that made movie stars feel even less indispensable and more outmoded than they already are, it would be 3-D. By definition, 3-D extravaganzas are genre films dominated by splashy computer-generated visual effects -- in other words, exactly the kind of movies that don't need a movie star in the first place.
Put yourself in the position of a studio executive, staring at your profit-and-loss statement, as you ponder what movies to greenlight for your 2012 slate. Even before "Avatar," you were eager to avoid making pictures with movie stars, since most of the recent mega-hits (i.e., "Hangover," "Star Trek" and "Transformers 2") had triumphed without any true movie stars while scads of movie-star vehicles had crashed and burned, notable examples being "Land of the Lost," "State of Play," "The Taking of Pelham 123" and "Imagine That."
But now you are faced with greenlighting a drama, genre thriller or romantic comedy -- the three genres that rely the most heavily on movie stars to attract a sizable audience. And it turns out that those are also the three genres that lend themselves the least to 3-D treatment, since mania or not, no one is clamoring to see a Nancy Meyers comedy or a Clint Eastwood drama in shimmering 3-D. So when you start doing the math, you realize that it's even harder to justify hiring a movie star, since those 2-D genres will now be competing against 3-D extravaganzas that can effortlessly rake in tens of millions more bucks at the box office simply from the $5 extra moviegoers will pay to see them.
In other words, it's no longer a level playing field. You don't need George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio to make "Cowboys and Aliens" or "Spider-Man 4" or "Happy Feet 2" or any of the other 3-D vehicles making their way through the system. In fact, why spend any money on a movie star when the vast majority of 3-D films already have their own built-in marketing hooks?
"If the business is bifurcating into small, under $30-million films largely financed by outside money and the big 3-D visual effects-driven studio tentpoles and franchises, where does that leave movie stars -- it leaves them in the lurch," said one studio chieftain who asked to remain anonymous, saying he didn't want to field a tsunami of grumpy phone calls from agents and managers already unhappy about seeing most of their clients taking huge pay cuts over the past year. "3-D is great for everyone's bottom line, but it's just going to put more downward pressure on the movie-star business. You can make so much more money with 3-D that it essentially puts a tax on 2-D dramas, romantic comedies and other projects, since they just won't project the same kind of box-office potential."
It's actually a double whammy for movie stars, since it's hard to imagine that Brad Pitt, Clooney or DiCaprio are clamoring to be in a 3-D movie in the first place. If DiCaprio wants to play J. Edgar Hoover in Eastwood's upcoming biopic, he's going to find himself working for even less money than he would have a year ago, since the 3-D Comic-Con movies are going to be viewed as the cash cows of the business for the foreseeable future.
James Cameron has loudly been complaining that Hollywood is getting it wrong, especially when studios keep telling filmmakers like Michael Bay that they want their franchise films to be hastily converted into 3-D. But if you study the history of the movie business, Hollywood is getting it right. 3-D might someday be an art form. But right now it's a trend. And in Hollywood, judging from past experience, when a trend is red hot, you can bet that the money people will follow that trend everywhere, even if it eventually takes them sailing off a cliff.
Photo of Sam Worthington in "Clash of the Titans" from Warner Bros.