By John Anderson
Three-dimensional cinema may well be the future of movies. But it’s also the past — and not just because a lot of old-timers would pick “House of Wax” (1953) as their favorite 3-D film. Consider the situation at Disney:
“John Carter,” the futuristic 3-D sci-fi extravaganza released March 9, cost $250 million (officially) to make, and is losing the company (officially) $200 million.
“The Lion King,” a movie that dates back to 1994, made more than $94 million at the box office after its recent rerelease as a 3-D reboot that reportedly cost about $10 million.
It’s not hard to do the math, or see where it leads.
This week, it leads to “Titanic” in 3-D, a likely landmark in the history of recycling. For many, a voyage aboard the James Cameron-directed Oscar winner and erstwhile box-office champ (later displaced by Cameron’s 3-D “Avatar”) will mean another ultraromantic journey into an enchanted, treacherous North Atlantic.
For others, of course, it will mean a three-dimensional Billy Zane, chewing the (enhanced) scenery and chasing Leonardo DiCaprio around a sinking ocean liner while firing a pistol.
Either way, it will look spectacular, says David Keighley, chief quality officer at IMAX, the gold standard of big-screen exhibition. “Besides improving the picture, we also remastered the sound,” he said. “You can feel the hull of the ship cracking.”
But not all 3-D films are viewed under the stringent quality control of IMAX, or measure up dramatically to the likes of “Titanic.” One of the lessons of recent events at the cinema is that 3-D can’t make bad movies into good films. The “Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace” — reissued in February in 3-D — remained largely unwatchable regardless of technical embellishments. “The Lion King,” on the other hand, was still, after 17 years, a sturdy, well-made treat with music, especially for the kids who hadn’t seen it and probably couldn’t have cared less about the rather obligatory 3-D revamp.
“‘The Lion King’ had a lot going for it,” said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. “It had a built-in audience, kids who hadn’t seen it, who weren’t born when it first came out, and it was No. 1 its opening weekend with $30.1 million. A total winner.”
“The thing is,” he added, referring to reissues, “people are paying an upcharge on a movie they’ve already seen. They already know they like it. That’s the thought process: You give people a thrill by bringing a movie they like back to the big screen and it’s another way to exploit 3-D. Why not? Even if studios have to go to the vault to make audiences excited for 3-D, it might make them more excited about new movies in 3-D.”
There will be no shortage of movies in 3-D coming soon, nor 3-D movies with something nostalgic about them. “Top Gun” and “Ghostbusters” are among the old movies scheduled for a technical upgrade. At Disney, a 3-D rerelease schedule has been in place for some time: “Finding Nemo” in September, “Monsters Inc.” in January and “The Little Mermaid” in September 2013. The studio has, of course, the kind of past it can ride into a very lucrative future — as was proved when “Beauty and the Beast” was rereleased in January. “’Beauty and the Beast’ made $17.7 million and was No. 2 its opening weekend,” Dergarabedian said. “It ultimately earned $47.3 million, a very good result. Nobody minds another $40 million in the bank account.”
And even if the movies themselves aren’t old, the 3-D treatment is being delivered upon some very well-worn brands, which will combine the benefits of familiarity and freshness: “Men in Black,” “Spider-Man,” “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are a few of the franchises being brought into the world of 3-D.