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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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No Surprises Dept.: Hollywood killing 3-D golden goose faster than expected

August 4, 2010 | 11:54 am

Despicable_me Whenever Hollywood finds a new cash cow, it dives in and loots its riches faster than any pickpocket on the planet. That's what the movie industry has been doing with its much-ballyhooed 3-D technology, which has spawned one legitimate masterwork ("Avatar") but otherwise has been little more than a cushy new revenue source for exhibitors and studios. Both have been raking in loads of moola from the extra $4 to $5 theater owners charge at the box office for admission to 3-D movies.

I always suspected that even the most gullible moviegoers eventually would figure out that few films are worth the extra tariff -- especially the ones, like "Clash of the Titans," that were the product of quickie 3-D transfers. But according to this story from the always enterprising Daniel Frankel in the Wrap, audiences are abandoning 3-D at an even faster rate than previously suspected. The story is accompanied by a fascinating graph detailing the percentages of opening-weekend box-office revenue that came from 3-D screens. The graph's arrow is heading in only one direction: straight down.

"Avatar," which offered a mind-blowing glimpse at the creative potential of 3-D, earned 71% of its opening weekend bucks from 3-D screens. That number went down to 61% by the time "Shrek Forever After" opened, dropped a notch to 60% for "Toy Story 3," dipped to 56% for "The Last Airbender" and now has plummeted to 45% for "Despicable Me."

What's scary about these numbers is that they are all culled from hit movies that people were actually eager to see. You'd have to assume that the numbers get worse with each ensuing weekend, since the hard-core fans who turn out on opening weekends are the ones most likely to shell out the extra cash for 3-D showings. So if the numbers for want-to-see movies are dropping steadily, imagine what the numbers will look like next year when every studio in town is churning out 3-D programmers. I mean, a sizable chunk of moviegoers might still want to pay an extra $4 or $5 to see "Cars 2" in 3-D, but are they really going to pay more for "Mars Needs Moms" or "Fright Night," two of the other Disney films slated for 3-D release next year?

The paltry numbers for 3-D tickets sold for "Despicable Me" come as no surprise if you have kids, since I've heard dozens of parents with children usually age 10 and under say their little ones can't stand wearing 3-D glasses, complaining of either discomfort or headaches. So far, studio execs are putting on a brave face. As Warner Bros.' distribution chief Dan Fellman told the Wrap: "You can't look at just three or four movies in a row and say it's over."

I'm not saying 3-D is over either. But I don't think it's the Next Big Thing anymore. Audiences aren't cattle. They've come to realize that, with some exceptions, most Hollywood films simply aren't noticeably better in 3-D. When Jim Cameron brings another film back to market, they'll be happy to see his work in 3-D. But too many movies simply don't gain that much sizzle from the 3-D experience.

When the studios realize next year how much they've cannibalized their audience by rushing dozens of films into a 3-D release, they will be cutting back, not ramping up their next round of 3-D releases. The Big Event films still will have the ability to draw large 3-D crowds, but when it comes to the lesser releases, moviegoers are going to be smart shoppers. The brave new world that 3-D tub-thumper Jeffrey Katzenberg imagined, where the multiplexes would be overflowing with 3-D movies on every screen, is still a long, loooong way away from reality.  

Photo: A scene featuring Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, with two of his minions from "Despicable Me." Credit: Universal Pictures-Illumination Entertainment

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