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Why are so many movies in 3-D?


The 3-D Box Office Boost
A whopping 60 percent of the ticket sales from "Toy Story 3" were for its 3-D incarnation. Even so, it represented a decrease from the previous year's 3-D ticket sales.
A whopping 60 percent of the ticket sales from "Toy Story 3" were for its 3-D incarnation. Even so, it represented a decrease from the previous year's 3-D ticket sales.
© DANNY MOLOSHOK/Reuters/Corbis

It's no secret that 3-D films are a boon to studios and theaters, thanks to a $3 to $6 surcharge for 3-D or IMAX 3-D compared to standard admission [source: Mendelson]. In urban markets like New York City, the 3-D premium can drive ticket prices up by 28 percent or as much as 43 percent for IMAX 3-D -- quite a bonus for the movie industry [source: Cheng].

While it's clear the studios are eager to add an extra dimension to every film in an attempt to increase box office gross, it's equally clear that moviegoers are starting to avoid 3-D in favor of good ol' 2D viewing. At the peak of the 3-D market, 3-D tickets accounted for a staggering 67 percent of box office sales. Since then, that figure has steadily declined, dipping to about 42 percent in 2013 [source: Lieberman].

One only has to look at how recent 3-D releases have fared compared to those released just a few years ago to see how U.S. movie fans have turned away from 3-D. When "Avatar" took over the box office in 2009, 71 percent of its opening weekend gross came from 3-D or IMAX tickets. The next year, "Toy Story 3" hit theaters, and the share of box office gross attributed to 3-D dropped to 60 percent. By 2013, films like "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2" were lucky to draw 31 percent and 27 percent of sales from 3-D showings, respectively [source: Smith]

Despite the obvious decline in 3-D demand domestically, it's unlikely that studios will back down from their commitment to the technology. Why? Some movies truly benefit from 3-D viewing, and when you match this technology with the right film, you create magic -- both on screen and at the box office. Despite a sharp drop in 3-D ticket sales since "Avatar," viewers flocked to 3-D showings of "Gravity" in 2013. The film made 80 percent of its opening weekend gross from 3-D sales, thanks to viewers who were eager to be a part of the film's rich scenes of deep space [source: Lang].

While 3-D success in the United States requires limiting this technology to certain kinds of films, the same is not true of international markets. Despite the reluctance of American moviegoers to shell out a few extra bucks on 3-D for most films, Hollywood continues to pump out film after film in 3-D. Why? You can thank Chinese movie enthusiasts.