Six years ago, I took my little brother to a showing of the Robert Rodriguez film Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. Along with our tickets we were each given a pair of classic red and blue lens 3D glasses. Needless to say the film itself was terrible, but the 3D was actually pretty well done. I purchased the movie on DVD later that year and was pleasantly surprised at how well the 3D effects made the jump to the small screen.
This was the first movie in many years to be released to theaters with 3D effects, and the movie goers spoke. Over one hundred million dollars at the box office in the United States alone was their way of saying they liked 3D. Less than two years later, the same director released another film in 3D. It was not nearly as successful, but the earlier success of Spy Kids had already prompted other studios to consider making their own movies.
Studios knew that in order for theatrical 3D movies to be successful, certain things had to change. The main thing being the 3D glasses worn by the viewer. The classic red and blue lenses not only distorted the image significantly by turning it different colors, but were prone to give the viewer headaches after only a few minutes of wearing them. The best option was what they called “polarized” lenses. Very similar to the type used in 3D films seen in amusement parks.
It wasn’t a problem. Simply hand out polarized glasses instead of red and blue ones and film the movies the same way the amusement park films were filmed. Simple right? Wrong. See, the polarized 3D film could only projected properly with a digital projector. These projectors could not be found in every first run movie theater. Many theaters only used the old fashioned “light shining through film” projectors. This gave the studios a choice, either give their 3D films a wide release and use the sub par red and blue lenses, or give them a limited release with the superior polarized.
Eventually, as more and more theaters installed digital projectors, a compromise was reached. 3D movies would receive a limited 3D release AND a wide non-3D release. Disney released Chicken Little that way in late 2005. The next year they experimented with 3D exclusivity with a 3D version of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which, due to good returns has been re-released every holiday season since.
The year 2009 has been a record year for these limited 3D releases, with at least seven 3D films from such studios as Pixar, Disney, Blue Sky and Dreamworks. Compare this to only two released in 2008. Acclaimed directors Robert Zemeckis(Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and James Cameron(Terminator, Aliens, Titanic) have joined Robert Rodriguez in the ranks of acclaimed directors to embrace this art with 3D films of their own being released this holiday season. Another such director, Tim Burton, is set to release one of his own early next year.
So the question is, is 3D here to stay? The answer seems to be yes, at least for now. Every major new dual release sees increased returns for the 3D version of the film. With the dramatic rise of the home theater since the introduction of DVDs in 1997, and Blu-Ray discs in 2006, seeing a movie in the theater is being viewed as a lot less economical than waiting to buy it on home video for more or less the same price to see it in the theater. 3D gives movie goers a reason to see the film in the theater. Polarized lenses are still not possible on even the highest quality HD TVs. Proper TVs will not be available for some time and they will need more time still to achieve the required market penetration.
Until then, polarized 3D is only in theaters. Classic lenses are of course an option for the small screen and some recent films were released on home video this way, but most studios seem to be capitalizing on 3D as a way to get people to the theater. A movie in the theater is a much better experience than on a TV screen, so anything that can convince somebody to go to one, especially in these hard economic times, sounds like a good idea to me.