Why are so many movies in 3-D?


3-D movie ticket sales are dwindling in the U.S., but that doesn't mean the business is any less lucrative.
3-D movie ticket sales are dwindling in the U.S., but that doesn't mean the business is any less lucrative.
nyul/iStock/Thinkstock

It seems that every movie on the marquee these days comes in multiple formats, from 3-D to IMAX to enhanced digital showings. Just 10 years ago, 3-D movies were something of a novelty -- the Motion Picture Association of America reported just two major 3-D releases out of nearly 500 films released in 2004. Over the next few years, 3-D films remained the exception, not the norm, with six 3-D films out in 2007 and eight released in 2008 [source: MPAA]. Then came "Avatar" in 2009, which shattered box office records and became the highest grossing film of all time, taking in well over $2 billion at box offices across the globe.

Hoping to recapture some of that "Avatar" box office magic, studios latched on to the 3-D format, with 26 3-D films making their way to theaters in 2010 and a whopping 45 competing for box office dollars in 2013 [source: MPAA].

Why the sudden explosion of 3-D films post-"Avatar"? After all, the technology has been around -- albeit in limited form -- since the 1950s. Forget all the talk about a richer, more exciting moviegoing experience: 3-D movies are all about the benjamins, and the studios work to convince you to part with more of your hard-earned money. Wonder how 3-D provides a boost at the box office? Read on to find out.

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.

3-D 'Round the World

The 3-D release of "Titanic" in 2012 has earned the movie an extra $944 million worldwide with the help of booming foreign markets like China.
The 3-D release of "Titanic" in 2012 has earned the movie an extra $944 million worldwide with the help of booming foreign markets like China.
Andres Hernandez/Liaison/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The United States is the world's biggest movie market -- for now. Emerging markets like China and Russia are quickly building steam and capturing the attention of moviemakers who are eager to increase ticket sales. While the 3-D craze may have ended in the United States for the majority of films, the demand for 3-D movies is hotter than ever overseas.

In 2014, 3-D accounts for 40 percent of U.S. ticket sales; around the world, that number is closer to 60 percent [source: Lam]. To meet demand for this technology, theater owners are adding 3-D screens throughout countries such as China, Brazil and Japan at a frantic pace.

The MPAA estimates that the number of digital 3-D screens in the United States grew from 3,548 in 2009 to 15,782 in 2013. While these numbers may seem impressive, they pale in comparison to some foreign markets. The number of 3-D screens in the Asia-Pacific market grew from 1,584 to 17,726 over the same period, which means that 57 percent of digital screens in the region are designed for 3-D viewing, compared to just 40 percent of digital screens in the U.S.

In Latin America, the growth is just as impressive, as the number of 3-D screens increased from just 362 in 2009 to 3,748 in 2013. Thanks to demand for 3-D viewing, 51 percent of all digital screens in this market are designed for 3-D showings [source: MPAA].

Even as U.S. theatergoers eschew 3-D in favor of more traditional -- and cheaper -- films, the insatiable overseas appetite for anything 3-D means the technology is here to stay, and top studios continue to seek more ticket sales in their quest for box office glory.

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Sources

  • Cheng, Roger. "Why 3-D Movies Are a Waste of Money." CNET. June 27, 2012. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.cnet.com/news/why-3d-movies-are-a-waste-of-money/
  • Lam, Eric. "Imax CEO Sees $1 Billion Box Office On China." Bloomberg. Sept. 12, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-12/imax-ceo-sees-1-billion-box-office-on-china.html
  • Lang, Brent. "Gravity Represents Turning Point for 3-D at the Box Office, Analyst Says." The Wrap. Oct. 7, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.thewrap.com/gravity-represents-turning-point-3d-box-office-analyst-says/
  • Lieberman, David. "2014 Box Office Will be Hurt by Diminishing Popularity of 3-D Movies: Analyst." Deadline. Feb. 3, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://deadline.com/2014/02/2014-box-office-will-be-hurt-by-diminishing-popularity-of-3d-movies-analyst-676253/
  • Mendelson, Scott. "How to Save 3-D Movies? Take Away 2D Theaters, Of Course!" Forbes. September 27, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2013/09/27/how-to-save-3d-movies-take-away-2d-theaters-of-course/
  • Motion Picture Association of America. "Theatrical Market Statistics 2013." 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2013_032514-v2.pdf
  • Smith, Grady. "Is the 3-D Fad Over?" Entertainment Weekly. Aug. 9, 2013. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.ew.com/article/2013/08/09/3d-movies-box-office