Does tech suffer blurred vision on 3D future?
Death of field...
Part 1 With the advent (again) of 3D, the movie industry has over the past couple of years turned big-time to IT for support. Over the same period the TV manufacturers have been looking to 3D to boost sales that started flagging once the first craze for HD has passed. So how are the effects of the current 3D phase showing up on the IT industry's bottom lines?
Image via Shutterstock 
The first fact to face is that 3D hasn't turned out to be anything like the bonanza Hollywood and the TV manufacturers were hoping for. James Cameron's hit Avatar, the most expensive, but also the highest-grossing movie of all time, appeared in 2009 as the confident leader of the current 3D revival, triggering a spate of shot-in-3D and 2D-to-3D bandwagon jumpers. Server farms across the globe ran white-hot 24/7 crunching the frames, while at home families were invited to throw out their newly acquired HD TVs and spend an extra grand or so to sit around in retro Polaroid shades watching the few 3D Blu-ray disks the market was able to provide.
3D TV not the cash cow manufacturers hoped for
Even Avatar couldn't save the 3D TV. Image via Shutterstock 
Is that 3D tide now on the ebb? There's certainly a lot of shingle showing up on the beach. The high price of the yen and widespread public indifference to the new eye-grabbing technology have triggered a huge retrenchment from the Japanese TV manufacturers. Hitachi, way ahead of the curve, quit the TV business towards the end of 2009, around the time all the other players were thinking the White Knight had arrived in the form of that Avatar theatrical release.
Panasonic, whose 3D TV's exclusively bundled the Blu-ray version of Avatar, is now projecting a 420 billion yen (£3.4 bn) net loss – attributable mostly to its TV division. Its largest plasma plant is suspending production, proprietary plasma know-how having been the prime push behind Panasonic's 3D TV marketing.
Sharp's brand new LCD panel factory at Kameyama has scheduled an 80 per cent cut in production, and poor Sony, besieged on all sides over the past 18 months – as CEO Sir Howard Springer puts it: "We've had everything but toads and pestilence" – is now warning of a 90 billion yen (£0.74bn) loss this year, which would make it Sony's fourth successive year in the red. In consequence the company seems to be on the brink of pulling out of its LCD panel manufacturing venture with Samsung.
Less than 40 per cent of punters watched Pirates of the
Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 3D. Image via Shutterstock 
Hollywood has fared little better on the 3D front. True, total box office receipts were up 5 per cent last year, but only thanks to a 7 per cent hike in seat prices: the total number of tickets sold actually fell. You could argue that 3D was paying off, because it was smash hit movies like Toy Story 3, excellently executed in 3D, that justified the ticket price rise. But ultimately the movie industry isn't about the price you can gouge for the seats, but the number of bums that fill them.
In 2009, Avatar was watched in 3D by 80 per cent of all punters queuing for the movie. That percentage has dropped radically for the latest movies. For Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Pirates 4), less than 40 per cent of the takings came from 3D tickets.
How much do movie-goers care about 3D?
This summer Kevin Markwick, cinema fanatic and owner of the three-screen Picture House cinema in Uckfield, Sussex, ran an experiment to find out what his "upmarket mainstream" audience really felt about 3D. He'd been alternating 2D and 3D showings of a particular film in the same cinema, but he changed the pattern by running the two versions simultaneously in two of his auditoriums. The side-by-side timings presented punters with a much clearer choice. He reports in his blog:
After a couple of weeks of 3D & 2D Pirates 4 and doing performances of Kung Fu Panda 2 at identical times in both formats, in order of preference the choice seems to made by the following:
1. Time of the performance.
2. 2D preferably. It’s cheaper and the kids don’t give a monkeys. They don’t wear the glasses most of the time.
3. 3D if it’s on at the time I want.
Movie industry analyst Michael Gubbings, speaking on BBC Radio's Film Programme, takes the view that "if 3D fails we're in some pretty serious trouble... An enormous amount of Hollywood money has gone into this 3D revolution. The idea of increasing revenues through 3D has been fundamental to studio policy."
Kevin Markwick's careful monitoring of his own audience in Uckfield has left him pessimistic about 3D's future: "As an exhibitor I think it's on the way out, personally."
Even if the effect of 3D on the punters in the cinema and at home has been underwhelming, the processes the TV manufacturers and Hollywood movie-makers have gone through in the past half-decade and the huge investments they've made are now irreversible. There's one fundamental difference from earlier "3D revolutions", summed up in the single word: "digital".
The most illuminating way of looking at what has been happening, and what is going to happen, may be to understand that 3D is only one of many branches of opportunity growing off the trunk of digital. It's true that digital presents 3D with the best shot it has ever had at becoming mainstream. But even if the naysayers are right, and this round of 3D crashes and burns altogether, the legacy of the digital technology it has helped introduce is truly game-changing.
In part two we'll be looking at those changes in detail, but here are some pointers:
This doesn't mean longer movies or TV ads, but it is 50 per cent more to be handled in post-production. Hardware manufacturers are seeing this in increased sales of hard drives and LTO tape cartridges. A post-production facility might have to hire more compositors and editors to cope with this increased amount of footage, because no one's going to allow deadlines to be stretched. That means more workstation sales for someone, and more high quality colour-calibrated monitors.
2) One big game changer due to digital has already happened. Back in the 1980s, the very first wave of digital post-production introduced dedicated hardware from companies like Quantel that was niche and hugely expensive. As commodity processors became more powerful, a new generation of Unix workstations – led by SGI – assumed this role, and around 1990 these began to be replaced in turn by standard Intel boxes equipped with high-end graphics cards and running Microsoft Windows.
But commoditisation had one more step to go. In part two we'll explore the rise of Linux, and the inexorable logic that lead movie industry application vendors to port their products across to an environment cooked up by geeks where "open source" is the norm.
3) Will the movie industry really crumble, as Michael Gubbins suggests, if 3D fails again this time? Perhaps the most important change that 3D has brought about in cinemas has been the introduction of digital projectors. Hollywood's been trying to persuade cinemas to switch to digital for years – because 35mm reels cost a bomb to dupe and distribute. 3D was the clincher for many cinemas. In 2007 there were 220 digital cinemas here in the UK. In four years that figure has increased tenfold. But the unintended consequence, from Hollywood's point of view, is that independent film producers get the biggest benefit.
"It would have had trouble getting a look-in on 35mm," says Kevin Markwick. He's talking about Senna, the documentary about the Brazilian racing driver that was an unexpected box office smash hit earlier this year. The economics of digital was certainly the only way British director Asif Kapadia could have pieced together his riveting 104 minutes from 15,000 hours of archival footage. But how did digital affect the movie's distribution?
Distributors and venue owners see these films in advance, take a bet on what's going to work, and the number of distribution copies is based on their guess. "Two or three years ago," Markwick explains, "a film like that probably would have had five or six 35mm prints, tops."
Opening with a limited release, Senna topped UK box office records for a documentary by taking £375,000 on its first weekend outing. Word of mouth fuels audience demand, but a 35mm distribution would have denied copies for other cinemas. "Even if you wanted to play it, you'd still have to wait. It would take a very long time for it to get round," says Markwick. "But with a digital drive, you can copy and out it goes."
So yes, digital is indispensible for the creation of typical Hollywood blockbusters like Toy Story 3 in 2D and 3D. But is also lightens the load for radical small budget directors working in traditional 2D. And by opening up choices for cinemas and audiences, digital projection ensures that films like Senna – which are worth seeing – get seen. The failure of this wave of 3D might leave Hollywood high and dry. But the film industry as a whole will come out smiling. ®