When writing about the box-office prospects for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire two years ago, I commended the film’s producers for shucking a 3D conversion in favor of an exclusive 2D release and staying true to their original intentions by refusing to cash-in on of-the-moment trends. Big questions remain regarding 3D’s longevity, but less so for the immediate future. In 2014, 12 of the year’s 15 highest domestic grossing film’s benefited from a 3D release, with American Sniper, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and 22 Jump Street being the only titles to make the ranks without it. This year has seen similar results.
While these figures might outwardly suggest 3D features consume over 75% of North American movie screens at all times, this coming weekend proves curiously anomalous in just how few screens will be running 3D showtimes. For example, of the 25 screens at the AMC Empire in Manhattan, only two screens will utilize 3D, for The Martian and The Peanuts Movie, respectively. Perhaps it’s a matter of season: With non-3D entries The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and Spectre running the show and Oscar bait kicking into high gear, a pair of 3D glasses could become as useless during winter months as a pair of board shorts.
While it’s tempting to suggest studios themselves are starting to make distinctions between “quality” and “popcorn” blockbusters by releasing 3D entries exclusively as summer fare, the evidence wholly refutes such a blanket assertion, not least because The Force Awakens is sure to be the biggest 3D event of all-time in just a few weeks time. Recent years have seen 3D franchise entries in November and December as well, most notably with the Hobbit films, but the marketing for other “holiday” blockbusters, like Interstellar, have actually used anti-3D rhetoric as a selling point.
As to whether 3D is a marker of quality or cultural ruin is growing increasingly beside the point, especially as directors from Wim Wenders to Jean-Luc Godard to Gaspar Noé have embraced the often-maligned format, albeit for wholly different purposes. Rather than contemplating 3D as an aesthetic issue, consider its emergence and proliferation as a further means for product differentiating Hollywood product, not just in how 3D features gain actual capital from the surcharge, but the way non-3D features gain a cultural capital by being perceived as more honest through their refusal of the medium.
These gains are no better epitomized by The Hunger Games franchise, which has flirted with, but refrained from, 3D for nearly all of its entries. In February, Variety ran a story announcing Mockingjay – Part 2’s forthcoming IMAX 3D release, something director Francis Lawrence claimed he was “thrilled” by. Fast-forward to June, where Forbes ran a story announcing Lionsgate’s decision to scrap 3D for Mockingjay – Part 2, with Lawrence claiming to be “pleased that we’re maintaining the 2D only formats domestically.”
What’s lost in these excerpts is that the latter two Hunger Games films have opened in 3D in China, presumably because international box office thrives in large part from 3D and animated features. Look at Terminator: Genisys, which earned roughly $90 million domestically and a whopping $350 million internationally, giving it a 20/80 spread in terms of domestic/international box-office percentage—the greatest split for a seven-figure-budgeted Hollywood film of all time. Its 3D likely played a significant role in boosting the divide, especially as 3D screens have tripled worldwide since 2011.
On Mockingjay – Part 2 screening in 3D in China, Lawrence said: “It is the best of all worlds!” Lawrence’s comments reveal the gray area of 3D Hollywood, where the technology is revealed to be neither good nor bad, but simply a tool for maximizing profits and catering to the tastes of cinemagoers, even if that means altering the film’s release strategy according to its market. The Hollywood mechanism, as pure product, has rarely been laid this bare.
There’s a practical tragedy to all of this as well, as Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov recently pointed out, in that many theaters screen 2D films with a 3D lens, neglecting to change the lenses between showings, and dimming the picture well beyond a reasonable margin of error. Whether these developments are the result of untrained projections or intense apathy on the part of theater chains is difficult to immediately surmise, but it’s concurrent with Hollywood’s present relationship with 3D: Whatever works.
As for its domestic opening, expect Mockingjay – Part 2 to debut with about $125 million this weekend.