After a Few Flops, Studios Are Playing Down 3-D

In the upcoming animated flick Megamind, Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell square off in an epic good-versus-evil fight that spoofs the well-worn but still white-hot superhero genre. Babies are saved, Tina Fey is terrorized and stuff blows up. Oh, and by the way, it’s in 3-D.

The suits at DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind the Nov. 5 release, aren’t trying to hide the fact that the movie is in 3-D. They’re just not using it as the core of their marketing strategy, which, at first glance, may seem like an odd move for the studio that’s been one of the most aggressive in using the new technology.

But it turns out 3-D is kind of a dirty word right now, with the bitter memory of some summer duds and their jacked-up ticket prices still lingering in consumers’ minds. Flops like Piranha 3-D and Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore didn’t help 3-D’s cause, nor did Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, which were shot in traditional 2-D but hastily converted to 3-D at the last minute.

How, then, will distributors position the flood of 3-D product they have queued up for multiplexes that have rushed into digital projection to show them? Very carefully, say industry watchers who noted that everyone from Avatar filmmaker James Cameron and legendary critic Roger Ebert to Joe Movie Fan have grumbled about the quality (or lack thereof) of 3-D movies. The backlash, in short, has begun.

“There’s a lot of negative reaction to 3-D now because consumers saw the studios jumping on the bandwagon and cashing in on premium ticket prices,” said Wayne Miller, president and chief creative officer of Action 3D Productions, which produces commercials, concerts, sports and music videos in 3-D. “But 3-D doesn’t make a bad film good, and consumers caught on.”

It’s no wonder studios have rushed into 3-D movies, which command at least $3 above the regular ticket price. 3-D helped make it a record summer at the box office—the overall tally was $4.35 billion, up 2 percent, even though attendance dropped 3 percent.

Four of the top 10 movies were in 3-D, including this year’s top moneymaker, Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, which snagged more than $400 million domestically and just crossed $1 billion total worldwide.

Still to come this year are Disney’s Tron: Legacy and Tangled, Paramount’s Jackass 3D and Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, among others.

Next summer, expect 11 movies in 3-D, up from this season’s seven. But don’t expect the 3-D message to be the top line in the advertising.

DreamWorks Animation, which produces all its films in 3-D, may be the first studio to move on from the “3-D is king” message. After launching its first 3-D picture, Monsters vs. Aliens, with a Super Bowl commercial and a massive 3-D glasses giveaway and Pepsi promotion last year, the studio’s teaser campaign for Megamind waits until the final seconds to mention 3-D.

“It’s not our No. 1 selling point,” DreamWorks marketing exec Linda Kehn said at a recent industry conference. “It’s a way to enhance the storytelling and make it more immersive. But the story has to come first. The movie has to stand on its own.”

Studios would do well to remember that, said Pete Sealey, industry consultant who’s a former marketing chief at Columbia Pictures, because 3-D technology isn’t like the addition years ago of sound and color to movies.

“It’s overhyped, and everyone’s leaping on it because they think it’ll give them an advantage in the marketplace,” Sealey said. “When, really, it’s only appropriate for certain films. I see it evolving as a specialty format with limited release.”

The subject of overpopulation and other hot topics will no doubt come up this week at a 3-D summit planned in Hollywood, where DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg is scheduled to speak. (Also on the roster: M. Night Shyamalan, who’s taken it on the chin for the subpar 3-D conversion of The Last Airbender).

There may still be cases where shouting about 3-D can work for and not against a film. For instance, genre specialist Lionsgate has put the 3-D label prominently on its latest Saw flick, speaking to horror fans with taglines like “In heart-pounding 3-D” and “In eye-popping 3-D.” (Given the franchise history, that latter description may be literal.)

But in general, it may become more of an afterthought. “There will be a shift in how these movies are positioned because 3-D isn’t a novelty anymore,” Miller said. “The message has to be about quality content, not how many Ds are in the name.”