Thursday, January 06, 2011

Will 3-D save Hollywood?

In the late ‘50s movie studios faced stiff competition from television. John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor were getting their asses kicked by George Gobel and Gale Storm. And color TV was hitting the market (albeit slowly… almost one color at a time). In an attempt to make the theater experience more special, Hollywood unveiled a new way to see movies – Cinerama. Talk about a widescreen -- three projectors simultaneously showing a movie on a huge, deeply-curved screen. Even Lucy & Ethel couldn’t compete with that.

Wow! This was a revelation. I remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA. It was really cool. You were riding on a giant rollercoaster, going through the canals of Venice, hanging out at Niagara Falls. I didn’t even care that there was no story and I was nauseous halfway through the picture.

Movies started being made in Cinerama, and after a while the novelty wore off. I recall sitting through this ponderous James Garner movie, GRAND PRIX. Endless scenes of point-of-view driving in race cars. Please make a pit stop!  Anything to break up the monotony!  Crash! 

Pretty soon the craze died down. Yeah, visually I’m sure it was eye-popping, but no one wanted to see CIRCUS WORLD or THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL. By the 70s, Cinerama was effectively over.

Another innovation Hollywood unveiled that was destined to revolutionize the movie industry was Smell-O-Vision. As absurd as this sounds, odors were pumped into theaters. A character on screen would hold up a bouquet of roses and you’d smell roses. She’d walk into a seafood store and you’d smell fish.

So when a movie stunk, it stunk!  And they did.

There were technical problems galore.  Smells weren't timed correctly, some parts of the theater got more of a blast than others, some scents were slow to dissipate.  You were left with the delightful aroma of fishy roses (which would probably still sell better than Jennifer Aniston's current perfume line is).  

This gimmick didn’t take off at all.  (Can you imagine if they tried Smell-O-Vision with a "certain scene" in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE?)

And here we are today. Studios face competition not only from TV but now from Netflix, streaming video, DVRs, ON DEMAND, Wii, my blog, and even smart phones. Ticket prices are high, commercials are shown, and inconsiderate assholes are texting and reading email during showings. To counter this, Hollywood has unveiled its latest stunt– 3-D. Better even than IMAX, their savior that didn’t save them last decade. Do we really need to see a close-up of Mick Jagger’s face six stories tall?

As with Cinerama, there has been an initial flush of success. But I caution the studios, 3-D alone won’t do it. Ultimately, what brings people into the Cineplex is good movies. You could make THE CLASH OF THE TITANS or THE LAST AIRBENDER in 4-D, 5-D, Smell-O-Vision, holograms, or images projected directly into your brain – no one is going to come see them.

Again, it all comes down to quality. We can ride our own rollercoasters, smell our own roses, or see the world in three-dimension. What we can’t get everyday are compelling stories that move us, make us laugh, cry, scream, and marvel.

Please don’t overlook the one innovation that has been attracting people to theaters for a hundred years – writers.


Gage said...

Like typewriters and Kodachrome, the handwriting is on the wall for the movie theatrical experience.

- TV
- Netflix
- Streaming video
- DVRs
- Wii
- Your blog
- Smart phones

- Ticket prices are high
- Commercials are shown
- Inconsiderate assholes

Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

R.I.P. Theatrical Release.

At best, you're heading toward "niche".

RCP said...

I will go see any film with James Franco in it, as long as a lookalike is assigned to sit in my lap during the viewing. Why Hollywood hasn't thought of this gimmick is beyond me.

As you state, Ken: it's the writing that ultimately counts.

Blaze said...

As long as folks to young to go into a bar go on dates, there will be cinemas.

As long as folks who are old enough to go to bars, but occasionally want to share each others' company on a date without drinking and talking to each other, there will be cinemas.

As long as parents can hire a babysitter and get away from their little darlings for an evening, there will be cinemas.

Generally, as long as people feel the need to get the hell out of the house once in a while, there will be cinemas.

(but, anyone who equates watching a movie on their phone (!) to experiencing it on the big screen is not the target demographic)

I was most skeptical of this current surge of 3D as well. But unlike earlier attempts, such as Ken lists, there have been a substantial number of flicks that were more than gimmick movies to exploit the effect.

carol said...

*stands and applauds*

I agree with this. I rarely go see movies these days, mostly because the prices are so high, it really needs to be something I want to see. Yet another re-make (sorry, re-imagining) or movie based on an 80's television show just doesn't cut it for me. Those I can wait until I can stream them on Netflix.

And I really look forward to the day when Reality Shows go AWAY. Give me a good, scripted show any day of the week.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

James Cameron is an evil man, lol.

I mean, not only is it because of him and Avatar (which was not that great a movie anyway), Hollywood IS trying to make 3-D the ONLY format movies will be filmed in; and on top that, they're trying to do the same with television sets as well, thus, trying to make 3-D the only format for everything in the next twenty years or so.

Do we really need to put on these big Drew Carey-esque glasses every single time we want to watch something?

Tom Quigley said...

Living in Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak, I had the benefit of being in a city which was one of the privileged few in the country to have a theater outfitted for digital projection when it was first developed. I went and saw the 3rd STAR WARS installment ("Revenge Of The Sith"), which had been filmed using digital technology, and was blown away by the clarity, depth and detail of the picture, even on a screen which was probably as large as any on which I've ever watched a movie. No picture jiggle, no frame alignment issues, no scratches, spots, blips or burn holes in the image... Visually, it was the most amazing experience I'd ever had at a movie theater. To me, it sounded the death knell for using standard celluloid film in producing feature films.

It's too bad that the quality of the stories isn't up to the quality of the technology available to make films today. Maybe if the two were really on a par with each other, even at the higher ticket prices, people still would be willing to have such an experience, rather than just go for the gimmicky hook like 3D, which in itself is not even new.

Tom said...


Michael Zand said...

3-D in it's current state, will never catch on beyond the multiplex. A friend of mine had me over to watch his 3-D tv and just like in Avatar I was dizzy and nauseous in two minutes. The glasses are a pain and eminently breakable, loseable and expensive. There's hardly anything being broadcast in 3-D right now or coming in the near future. The only shot 3-D might have is for sports like football or basketball or even tennis. Even then I don't think I could make it more than half an hour before I ralphed. A big screen HDTV is the gold standard that works just fine for me.

Anonymous said...

3D is being pushed for only ONE reason. It's impossible to pirate. Any attempt to film a 3D screen will result in a blurry image. While 3D won't make a bad movie good, the reverse is also true. 3D won't ruin a good movie, so I don't see what the point of resisting it is.

Emily Blake said...

I hate 3D. Gives me a headache. All I could think during Avatar was how much I wanted to get those damn glasses off so my head could stop hurting.

Now, if a movie's in 3D I'll wait until I can see it in 2-D.

Anonymous said...

It's not the quality of the films that is keeping people like me out of the theatres. It's not the prices either. What keeps me out of the cineplex is a laissez faire management style that does NOTHING to police the use of cell phones during a show, both talking and texting. Nothing takes me out of a film more quickly than a sea of little blue screens peppered throughout the audience. It's annoying, and as long as management does nothing to stop it, I'm staying away. And I say this as an avowed film buff.


gottacook said...

Thanks for making a point that cannot be made often enough: All the special effects and technologies in the world cannot compensate for a poor script. I first learned this in 1976 after seeing Logan's Run, having hoped for an actual adaptation of the novel but instead getting what might as well have been a case of "effects first, 'story' later."

I have seen one 3D movie, How to Train Your Dragon; I enjoyed it enough to want to see it again someday, but in 2D. Not worth the trade-off in decreased brightness.

On the other hand, I will always be glad I got to see 2001 in Cinerama, at age 11.

Casey White said...

Sadly, "Clash of the Titans" grossed $493 million in theaters worldwide.

Matt said...

As someone who only uses 1 of his 2 eyes (hereditary issue) I pray for the death of 3D, or at least a way that you can see 3D with the glasses but if you want 2D you can just take them off.

And if you are unable to "lose" yourself in a standard movie, I pity you. I have spent many an hour seeing fantastic films that seem like they were over before they started because I was completely captivated.

The Social Network, "Love, Actually", The Shawshank Redemption...the list is long but I'll stop now.

John said...

In the home video market 3-D television sets BOMBED during the Christmas shopping season, because watching television at home in a passive experience -- i.e. you're likely to be doing 1-2 other things at times while the show is on, and trying to interact with the real world while wearing either the old-style cheap 3-D glasses or the new-style $150-a-pair goggles is incredibly annoying (and I've already gone over the disaster that was viewing the Dallas Cowboys-San Diego Chargers game at Jerry Jones' new stadium in 3-D on the Cowboys 80-yard-long video board. Drunk people have a hard enough time focusing to begin with, let alone 90,000 football fans trying to look at the scoreboard with glasses on and then glancing down to see the red-and-blue field below it).

At the very least going to a theater to watch a 3-D movie is a focused activity -- you're going there to watch the movie and the movie alone, so having the wear the glasses isn't as distracting, unless you're headed for the refreshment stand or the rest room. But it's not something people are going to go out of their way to watch, especially in a movie where 3-D does nothing to add to the story. As has been the case each time 3-D has been tried, once the novelty wears off on a new generation of movie-goers, the extra cost of 3-D production produces diminishing returns.

@IFeedUrTV said...

Personally, I don't see the fuss of 3D, for most of the reasons everyone's given so far. On the 3D TVs I've seen in stores, it's like looking at a View-Master - two flat images, one over the other. That doesn't quite cut it for me. And $100+ for extra pairs of glasses? That gets expensive for a typical family real quick. And the fact you have to stay glued to the center of the set to keep the effect may test a family's limits of "togetherness." Never mind the fact that some people can't even process 3D because of neurological or vision problems.... I await the day this 3D fad goes the way of those ping-pong stereo albums from the '50s.

danrydell said...

Yeah, The Last Airbender. What was THAT.

sanford said...

Despite the different ways one can watch a movie, I don't think going to movies is quite yet dead. Compared to any other form of entertainment such concerts and sporting events going to a movie is still pretty inexpensive. And it depends where you live. Yes you are going to pay big bucks in New York and Chicago.

By the way there is nothing wrong with remakes if they are well done. True Grit did very well at the box office. As much as I liked the John Wayne version, the new one may be better. Besides no one complains when they do revivals of plays.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Well, if Hollywood really wanted to save the theater experience they might consider a complimentary Korean Vaginal Steam Bath with every ticket.

Richard J. Marcej said...

Are you serious Ken?
Quality, good movies will get people into the theaters.

Tuesday night I went and saw "The King's Speech" (an excellent film BTW). There may have been a total of five of us in the audience. Next door was "Little Flockers", playing to a large crowd, the number one money maker in the last two weeks.

Seriously Ken, GOOD movies will get people into the theaters?

What are you smoking.

Anonymous said...

I heard "Little FLOCKERS" wasn't that bad, as opposed to the steaming t^rd that is "Little Fockers"...

Les said...

I've been a 3D enthusiast since I was a kid, and am still waiting to grow up.

That said, I assume 3D this time is going to go the way of 3D every previous time. The glasses annoy a lot of people, they're difficult for people who wear regular glasses, and whatever method is used (red/green, polaroid, shutter), they make the image dimmer. And as someone has already weighed in, there are a number of people (you included, Ken) who can't perceive the 3D effect anyway.

Just starting to appear in the US are TVs and computers that show a 3D image without needing glasses, but you need to be directly in front the device and at the right distance. Not exactly a gather-the-family-together experience. The picture is akin to those cheesy 3D postcards you may have seen with the plastic ridges over the surface (lenticular prints). OK, I think it's cool, but I know it's cheesy.

I've owned a few different 3D cameras that splashed on the scene with the promise of easy and cheap processing making 3D magic available to anyone. Without exception, the processing businesses all failed. Now I've just bought a digital 3D camera, mainly because I can make anaglyph prints (those red-green pictures) or Holmes cards (those 19th-century cards you'd put in a wooden holder that was a predecessor to the ViewMaster) on my own computer. Yes, Fuji (the manufacturer) is offering prints, but I think I'm probably capable of standing on one foot as long as that service is going to be available.

That was my 3D geek disgorge. Just remember, for all my geekery, I agree that it's a fad and that story and character are what count. And I still like to go to the movies even if the movies only meet me halfway.

Anonymous said...

"Good quality movies will get people into the theaters" has been the mantra of screenwriters for years...

...and the punchline of studio execs as they laugh all the way to the bank.

3-D will change nothing.

Max Clarke said...

If I want the 3-D experience, I'll leave the house and take a walk.

Dan in Missouri said...

I am so tired of hearing that movie theatres are dead. I've been making a living for nearly thirty years in small town movie theatres and they are quite popular.
Watching a multi million dollar movie on a big screen is still cheaper than nearly every other out of home entertainment experience. In our towns, going to a high school play costs more than going to a movie.
In many of the small towns that we operate theatres in, there are more screens, more LARGE screens, than during the "golden age" of movies in these same towns.
3 D work with some movies such as Avatar, Tron, all the 3 D Pixar movies and more.
3 D is not for all movies.
Kitchens haven't killed the going out to eat experience, nothing will kill the movie theatre experience.
Netflix, on demand and other such technologies may eat each other, but movie theatres will survive.
That is the real world.

bevo said...

I really enjoy Grand Prix and wish I could see it in the original format.

My preference for the movie got me laid. I was talking to a chick and made a reference to the movie (really long story). The chick said it was one of her favorite movies.

Lucky me.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Golly, I loved Grand Prix. And I've never been able to see it in its original format.

If you were me, you'd consider yourself lucky. At least for that.

Ian said...

To Sanford, who referred to the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" as a "remake," you're wrong. It's based on the novel of the same name by Charles Portis. There was an earlier film based on the same novel. The current film isn't based on the earlier film.

Also, Ken, "Clash of the Titans" and "The Last Airbender" were big moneymakers, sad to say.

Anonymous said...

You were left with the delightful aroma of fishy roses

Which must have been doubly frustrating if your name was Rosie Fisher.

lucifervandross said...

How to Train Your Dragon, was so good in 3D I almost don't want to watch it without. But now TVs are in 3D too. The theater expense just isn't worth it. The last non-film festival movie I saw was Inception, it was late in the run and the print sucked. I could have waited a couple of more months, grabbed the bluray and saw it as if Nolan was shooting it directly into my brain. Why did I pay $10. Oddly enough I did see an Imax movie the same day (the Hubble telescope movie) and it was awesome.

D. McEwan said...

"I remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA."

Really? Because This is Cinerama opened in 1952, at the Warner's Cinerama Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and the Cinerama Dome didn't open until 1963. The first film to play there was It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which was in Super Panavision, then marketed as "Cinerama" although it used the single-camera system. Actual Cinerama, such as This is Cinerama or How the West Was Won utilized three cameras/projectors.

No three-Camera Cinerama film played at the Cinerama Dome until it was converted for use by adding two additional projection booths) for a Cinerama revival festival held there about 6 years ago, during which new prints of every movie shot in Cinerama played, at which time I did see This is Cinerama at the Cinerama Dome, where it had never played before.

My Uncle Mack Lunt worked at Cinemiracle, a similar system used for one film only, Windjammer, after which Cinemiracle was bought out by Cinerama, and Mack worked on the development of One-Camera "Cinerama," aka SuperPanavision, and worked on Mad World. The process was used by Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which played at the old Warner Cinerama Theater where This is Cinerama had played 16 years before.

Oh, and I always rather liked The Halleluliah Trail, which I have on DVD.

darms said...

Hmmm, thought "Smell-O-Vision' was a myth although I really enjoyed John Water's "Polyester" & the Odorama scratch n'sniff card, the smell of the wet tennis shoes hiding behind the bouquet of roses was to this day a real shocker.

Btw hate seeing movies in theaters these days because of:
1-cell phones that are not turned off
2-people who will not shut up during the movie
3-I'm a smoker...

& bonus, 4-no pause button

Anonymous said...

@D. McEwan: This is Cinerama was re-released in a converted single-strip format in 1973, so this may be what Ken meant. Or he saw it at one of the recent showings at the Cinerama Dome, where it pops up occasionally.

Also, Mad Mad World wasn't in Super Panavision but rather Ultra Panavision, which used anamorphic lenses to produce a wider picture than Super Panavision. There was no single system for "one-camera Cinerama," but there were a number of 65mm formats that were exhibited in Cinerama theaters as "one-camera Cinerama." For example, Battle of the Bulge, Hallelujah Trail and Khartoum were all shot in Ultra Panavision; Circus World and Custer of the West were shot in Super Technirama; and Grand Prix, Ice Station Zebra and 2001 were all in Super Panavision.

daveed said...

Ken, you're forgetting one important distinction: those earlier innovations didn't command a higher ticket price, like 3-D does now.

3-D may not save Hollywood in terms of quality moviemaking, but it's certainly saving the studios' bottom line.

D. McEwan said...

Anonymous, thanks for the clarification on Ultra vs Super Panavision. It is hard to keep all those systems straight.

I was aware that How the West was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim were released in single-trip versions (which looked bloody awful, though the recent DVD release of How the West Was Won does a better job of fusing the three images than any of those single-strip releases ever did), but I did not know that This is Cinerama had ever been.

I can not for the life of me imagine why This is Cinerama would have been released in a single-strip format. Making it single-strip would destroy its sole reason to exist. Did they retitle it This is NOT Cinerama!? In any event, my Uncle Mack is long dead, so I can't ask him about it.

But I highly doubt that when Ken wrote "I remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA," he was referring to a single-strip release (Which one might run from, but not towards. And when you're 23, as Ken was in 1973, you usually stroll to the theater from your car.), let alone "running" to see a 50 year-old full-Cinerama re-release well after he was himself 50. He just mis-remembered which theater he saw it at, as it was 57 years ago.

But I did not know that multiple formats were used for single-camera "Cinerama" releases, and it is most interesting. Of the various titles you listed, I've only ever seen Halleluiah Trail which, as I said earlier, I like, and Khartoum I'm not so fond of, as it's a historical pitching the talents of Lord Laurence Olivier against the "talents" of Charleton Heston, should have been called "The Agony and the Ecstasy," except another Heston turkey had already appropriated that title. (An old friend of mine also ascribes that title to The Big Broadcast of 1938, as it stars WC Fields (Ecstasy) and Bob Hope (Agony.)

What were Mad World and 2001, the two most-popular one-camera Cinerama releases, shot in? Whichever one Mad World was shot in was the one my Uncle worked on the development of.

Mack then left to shoot a Circle-Vision movie for the New York Port Authority's pavilion at the 1964-'65 New York World's Fair, where Mack was the chief projectionist for the entire fair. (When I visited the fair in 1965, I stayed at Uncle Mack's home, and he took me to see many of the Fair's filmed shows from their projection booths. No line-standing!)

D. McEwan said...

Daveed, those earlier innovations, certainly Cinerama, were FAR more costly to see than regular releases, and you didn't have the option of seeing a non-Cinerama version for less (until, it appears, 1973, when you could no longer see the original Cinerama versions.)

D. McEwan said...


Thanks for the clarification on Super-Panavsion, Ultra-Panavision, and Super-Technirama. I did not know three different formats were called "Cinerama" in their big releases. That's very interesting.

My Uncle Mack worked on the development of Ultra-Panavsion, as, according to the DVD, that's what It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was shot in. (After working on the Mad World shoot, Mack shot a Circle-Vision Film for the New York Port Authority's pavilion at the New York 1964-65 World's Fair, where Mack became the Chief Projectionist for the entire Fair. When I visited the Fair in 1965, I stayed in Mack's home, and he took me to see many of the Fair's film presentations from their respective projection booths. No line standing!)

But I hardly think that when Ken wrote: "I remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA," he was referring to seeing it in a non-Cinerama format when he was in his mid-20s. (Those single-strip releases, I only saw the ones for How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, were really crappy-looking anyway. The recent DVD release of How the West Was Won does a much-better job of fusing the three images into one - with three separate focal points, so it can never look like Life.)

Nor was Ken likely to "remember running to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see THIS IS CINERAMA" six years ago, when it was an historical curiosity, and, at 54, Ken probably not "running" to any theater then, but rather driving and strolling. He merely mis-remembered which theater he saw it at 57 years ago. This can happen.

Anonymous said...

@ D. McEwan: Mad, Mad World was shot in Ultra Panavision, which had started life as MGM Camera 65, used on Raintree County and Ben-Hur. 2001 was shot in Super Panavision but may also have utilized Todd-AO for some of the wide-angle shots.

As for why why This is Cinerama was re-released in single strip, I have no idea. The brand was dying by then, as were the days of special "roadshow" presentations of films with reserved seating, intermissions and overtures. It's likely they were trying to revive interest in the format, but as you pointed out, the irony of trying to recapture the "wow" factor in the stunted format was apparently missed by the producers. The sadder irony is that the re-release of TIC was the final "official" Cinerama presentation.

If you are interested in learning more about the various widescreen systems and have a few hours to spare, I recommend checking out the American Widescreen Museum at The Cinerama page there has a frame from the 70mm version of TIC where you can see the color mismatch between the panels as well as the fact that much of side panels are cut off.

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan, about your Uncle Mack being the chief projectionist in the Circle Vision theater at the World's Fair. Did you ever hear what became of any of the prints of that show, which was called 'From Every Horizon'?
Nobody seems to know if they still exist.