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3-D starting to look flat at the box office

July 8, 2009 |  6:24 pm

Romano3dAs more movies play in digital 3-D, there’s evidence that audiences are becoming less interested in the ballyhooed format that many in Hollywood have predicted will stem the long-term erosion of theater attendance.

Box office data for “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” which opened last Wednesday, shows that theaters with at least one screen playing the film in 3-D generated on average, 1.4x  as much in ticket sales as those that only showed the picture the old fashioned 2-D way. (A breakdown by individual screens within multiplexes was not available.)

The higher gross represents a mix of ticket price surcharges, which are typically $2 to $3 for digital 3-D, and higher attendance.

The ratio of grosses in theaters with 3-D screens to those that are 2-D only has declined significantly and fairly consistently since “My Bloody Valentine,” the first film this year to play on a mix of both, suggesting audience interest in the new format is waning.

Here’s how much higher ticket sales were for theaters with 3-D screens compared with theaters with only 2-D screens on the opening weekends for the five major releases so far this year (the numbers are based on studio estimates, as reported by The Times, and Variety):

  • “My Bloody Valentine 3-D”: 6.4x
  • “Coraline”: 3x
  • “Monsters vs Aliens”: 2.1x
  • “Up”: 2.2x
  • “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”: 1.4x

Those figures, of course, don't fully represent the financial advantage of 3-D screens compared with 2-D screens, because many theaters feature both;  1,620 of "Ice Age's" 4,099 U.S. and Canadian locations played the film in 3-D, but 1,205 of those also played it in 2-D. Average grosses within those 1,205 probably were dragged down somewhat by their 2-D screens.

Nonetheless, as an apples-to-apples comparison, the decline in 3-D's advantage is significant and curious. It's partially due, no doubt, to the rising number of theaters equipped with 3-D screens. January's "My Bloody Valentine" was in 1,033 of them. By the time "Monsters vs. Aliens" came out in March, there were 1,550. "Ice Age" was on 1,620.

The more theaters with 3-D screens there are in a given region, the more they may split audiences interested in the technology and thus lower their average gross.

It's also possible that as 3-D releases increase in frequency -- "Up" came out four and a half weeks before "Ice Age," "G-Force" follows just three weeks later -- audiences become a little less enchanted by what they get for their extra money. Other upcoming releases using the technology include August's "The Final Destination," September's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," October's re-release of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," November's "A Christmas Carol" and December's "Avatar."

There's certainly no sure evidence that films are consistently doing better as a result of 3-D. While many factors affected the movie's performance, including the Fourth of July falling on a Saturday, it's notable that "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" earned less domestically in its first five days than the 2-D "Ice Age: the Meltdown," grossed its first three days in March of 2006.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" star Ray Romano at a 3-D screening of the film with elementary school students in the Bronx.

 Credit: Dave Allocca / Associated Press