The 3-D Ship Has Sailed: Can We Enjoy the Voyage?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last month, I posted "3-D Fails Another Test,"in which I returned to the question of whether 3-D technology in movies is much ado about nothing. Having seen "Avatar" first in 2-D, then in 3-D, I concluded that the record-setting film was just as visually awesome in either format, with no extra awesomeness accruing from the newer technology. Given that this was simply my opinion offered on a slow news day, I was not surprised to see readers (both on the comment board, and in private emails) offering both agreement and disagreement with my idiosyncratic opinion.

One reader, however, posted something of an invitation on the comment board. Disagreeing with me regarding 2-D vs. 3-D, he added: "Avatar should be regarded as an IMAX 3D movie, that happened to be shown in Digital 3D and 2D because IMAX theaters aren't the norm." Intrigued, I decided to see "Avatar" once more, this time in IMAX 3-D.

My conclusion: While nothing about regular 3-D wowed me, IMAX 3-D delivered what I had hoped 3-D would deliver. It was a completely different experience. In fact, the movie "felt" like a different experience, in the very physical sense. As a person who never, ever speaks during movies, I was shocked at one point to hear myself saying, "That's cool!" (Luckily, no one could hear me over the 10,000-watt sound system.)

This positive reaction is all the more impressive because, as I wrote in my earlier post, there is nothing especially interesting or innovative about "Avatar," with the outstanding exception of its visual breakthroughs. Even on my third viewing of a movie with average acting and a very familiar story, the IMAX 3-D technology was simply amazing. To say the least, I was never bored.

Hollywood has obviously decided that 3-D movies are here to stay, for very good cost-benefit reasons. The studios spend zillions on the new technology (including the cameras and theaters in which to display the new-style movies), and they get many more viewers (paying a higher ticket price, at least in IMAX theaters) who would otherwise have watched a pirated version on their iPhones. Unless the economics changes, therefore, we will see many more movies released in 3-D.

In microeconomics classes, however, we teach our students that there is a difference between "social cost-benefit analysis" and "private cost-benefit analysis." The difference is in the possible "externalities" that might cause the costs and/or benefits that private actors face to differ from the overall social costs or benefits. Even if a private market embraces a new technology, therefore, the new technology might still not represent a social improvement.

Obviously, we would need something more than "'Avatar' really is better in IMAX 3-D" to prove that the social benefits of filmmakers' embrace of this new technology are large enough to represent an overall social improvement. The key question (assuming away other complicating factors, as economists are wont to do) is whether the marginal enjoyment of 3-D movies is as high as the higher ticket revenues indicate, or whether those revenues somehow overstate the marginal social benefits (because, for example, the demand for tickets reflects fad effects). Given that this is armchair theorizing, I will not go into technical details about the underlying economics. The question is simply whether movies will be better in 3-D than in 2-D -- and sufficiently better to justify the much higher production costs.

To collect another data point, I saw "Alice in Wonderland" in IMAX 3-D yesterday. Very enjoyable, and a pleasant change for Tim Burton after his recent embarrassments ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Sweeney Todd"). Unfortunately, the IMAX 3-D technology did not seem worth it. The movie is not good enough to see twice more, in the other formats, but it seems easy enough to guess that the 2-D version would be just as fun and interesting as the version that I saw. One hint is that Burton felt the need to hurl objects toward the audience at every opportunity -- a sure sign of desperation in the use of 3-D technology.

In short, I remain skeptical that movies are really going to be transformed by 3-D technologies. It is good to know that some films will make full use of the new possibilities. That, however, does not mean that we will ultimately consider the current 3-D breakthroughs to be as important as the introduction of talkies in the 1920's. They might, in fact, well come to be seen as no more important than the 3-D breakthroughs in the 1950's.