'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Avatar' were 3-D megahits. Will this season's upcoming films measure up?

August has not been kind to 3-D movies. Between the paltry $10 million earned by Piranha 3D last weekend to the lackluster $37 million taken in by Step Up 3D since it bowed Aug. 6, it’s easy to assume that audiences have already tired of the much-hyped technology. The gripes about 3-D are certainly well documented: The ticket prices are too high; the payoff (especially in slapdash conversions for films shot in 2-D) can be too little. In fact, since Avatar ushered in the new era of fully immersive 3-D last December, the number of bona fide 3-D blockbusters can be counted on one hand. (Of those films, only Alice in Wonderland was a break from the standard kiddie-animation formula.) But despite all that, industry experts remain as bullish as ever on the future of 3-D. And here’s why.

First of all, many would quibble with the classification of Piranha 3D as a failure. ”What would Piranha have grossed if it wasn’t in 3-D?” asks one insider. ”Probably only a couple million dollars.” It’s true: Neither the killer-fish movie nor Step Up — both of which had smaller budgets than any of the true 3-D behemoths — was ever expected to set box office records. (After all, Piranha‘s $10 million gross was enough for Dimension Films to announce Aug. 22 that it was greenlighting a sequel.) And perhaps most importantly, no one has faulted either film for the quality of its 3-D footage, as they did earlier this year with Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, two films that were converted to 3-D just a few months before their theatrical releases. In contrast, Step Up was shot in 3-D. Piranha was shot traditionally only because shooting 3-D in water proved impossible — and a conversion was always part of the plan. ”This is not ‘Oh, by the way, why don’t we follow the 3-D craze?”’ says executive producer Bob Weinstein. ”This was directed with a conversion to 3-D in mind. It was not an afterthought.” Could that be a sign that the days of laughably bad conversions are behind us? Industry insiders certainly hope so. ”If we go down the path of creating cheap 3-D, the moviegoing public will notice that,” says Greg Dunn, president of the nation’s largest theater chain, Regal Cinemas. ”It will kill the golden goose.” (Dunn says he received complaints from customers after Clash, but the movie — which managed to pull in $61 million in its opening weekend — was hardly a bomb.)

There’s also a chance that theaters could rethink the incredibly steep $5 surcharge on many 3-D tickets. (The markup makes a family night at the movies shockingly expensive.) ”Pushing the up-charge [so high] was a huge mistake,” says one distributor. ”We’re all pretty cognizant of that. I don’t know if it comes down or if it just doesn’t go up as regular ticket prices rise.”

No matter what happens, the 3-D trend isn’t going anywhere. Studios are releasing more than 60 3-D movies in the next two years. Even Michael Bay and Marvel Comics — which had been reluctant to embrace the technology — have come on board. Transformers 3, Captain America, and Thor will all be released in the extra dimension next summer.

In the meantime, perhaps John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, says it best: ”3-D is neither the most important thing that ever happened to Hollywood nor is it going to go away. The industry has to discover what works best in 3-D.” So far that’s Pixar characters and blue Na’vi. Limber dancers and man-eating fish? Not so much. (Additional reporting by Clark Collis)

Here are the recent 3-D releases that really popped — and some that just fell flat.

3-D helped the top-earning film of all time. Domestic haul: $749.8 million

Toy Story 3
It brought in Pixar’s best box office ever. Domestic haul: $403.8 million

Alice in Wonderland
Johnny Depp did wondrously. Domestic haul: $334.2 million

Shrek Forever After
Audiences and DreamWorks both saw green. Domestic haul: $237.7 million

The Last Airbender
Forget the planned trilogy? Domestic haul: $130.1 million

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
Total cat-astrophe. Domestic haul: $39.7 million

Step Up 3D
Earned 10 percent less cash than Step Up 2. Domestic haul: $36.9 million

Piranha 3D
The horror flick’s debut smelled fishy. Domestic haul (first weekend): $10 million — Keith Staskiewicz

Alice in Wonderland
  • Movie
  • 109 minutes