Sometime in the late 1800s, a British inventor named William Friese-Green realized that you could project two of the same image side by side, look through a stereoscope, and produce the illusion of three dimensions. It was a brilliant invention that masses of people couldn’t utilize at the same time in theaters. So it went away. It was tested further three decades later, but no one was buying it. So it went away. Then it evolved, was tested further, and no one was buying it. So it went away.

Then, came the 1950s.

With what we all know as the Golden Era in 3D film looming overhead, panelists and attendees gathered for the 3D Entertainment Summit this week brought by the promise of hearing Henry Selick speak and anxious to know the future of the format that seems to be slowly taking over the industry like some sort of Thing from Outer Space.

Variety has a fantastic write-up of the opening day which featured some frank discussion about the current business situation – something that’s far more fascinating. Among the panelists was Charlotte Jones, a senior analyst for Screen Digest, who claimed that 3D would be here to stay.

Apparently the numbers for 3D are being lauded as one of the saviors of the box office this year so far, although admittedly the huge success of My Bloody Valentine 3D has augmented the numbers a bit. But she also points out a problem that’s been clear to movie fans for the past few months.

There are simply too many movies going into 3D production. On the fan site of the argument, it’s a painful scenario where movies that have no business being in 3D are slapping it on their projects (assuming that it’s the marketing equivalent of slapping a “Free Beer” sticker on your posters). What’s more, movies are still using 3D as a gimmick instead of as an artistic tool with few exceptions like Up and Coraline rounding out the field. From a business stand point, too many of one thing is always bad. Markets get oversaturated and products start to lose their appeal.

These two realities come together to make the perfect point as to why 3D is (yet again) a fad in filmmaking. 3D has found renewed success for the same reason it hit big in the 1950s, and then again in the 1980s: it’s an spectacle. Going to the new 3D movie should be an event, but with filmmakers rushing to gimmick-up their movies and studios calling for more and more, the shine is lost. And without that shine, without that uniqueness, audiences will eventually grow tired of paying more to see a movie that looks almost the same in boring, old, traditional two dimensions.

Of course, the simpler reason is that with more movies biting into the pie, there’ll be less to go around and the business appeal will lack the added value needed to keep making the damned things.

As pointed out in the article, Selick experienced this first hand with Coraline because they could only book 600 of 900 screens available for 3D and got knocked out a week later by The Jonas Brothers. From an artistic stand point, it sucks. From a business stand point, it still sucks. A film that was meant to be seen in three dimensions could have made more money if not for a reel of concert footage that slapped glasses on everyone as a marketing gimmick.

On the other hand, Jones claimed that an increase in 3D-capable screens was coming to the tune of almost double by 2013. So there very well could be a continued dedication to bringing 3D entertainment to the masses at a steady pace.

I can’t say for sure whether the current 3D fad will die out soon or whether it will rise above that “fad” label to become a mainstay in filmmaking in a way its failed to in the past. It’s all speculation even if history hasn’t been kind to the concept. I do, however, I have to wonder if all those screens being converted to 3D are going to need it in 2013. The first 3D fad lasted 3 years. The second lasted 4. If we consider this the first year of a 3D explosion (where everyone from Titanic to Miley Cyrus wants another dimension), the fad might just be dying down right around the time those screens pop out all shiny and new. So the question now is Will there be anyone in the audience to see it by then?

There’s no guarantees here either way, but the fact that the industry is investing in expanding our 3D universe isn’t proof that it’s here to stay. It could be the natural next step for a booming business or what history books will later call a major investment folly, a failure to recognize the lack of longevity for something that has tried to become mainstream for over 110 years but can’t quite seem to figure it out. On the business side, I’d say exercising caution is better than getting your pants wet. And as a fan, I’d say leave the 3D to Selick and others who know what they’re doing with it, who are using it to enhance their art, who realize that it can be used as something far better than a gimmick.

What do you think?


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