Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Credit: Peter Mountain

Last weekend, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earned a staggering $260.4 million overseas — the largest foreign debut ever. Much of its success could be attributed to 3-D screenings, which accounted for 66 percent of the movie’s overseas gross. Some countries particularly embraced the 3-D format; in China and Russia, for instance, 3-D showings represented 85 and 71 percent of the film’s revenue, respectively. But 3-D is still a new and attractive selling point in many foreign markets. In America, the numbers tell a different story.

Domestically, Pirates‘ 3-D showings accounted for just 46 percent of its $90.2 million opening, according to Disney. That’s a sharp percentage drop from such other 3-D event films as Avatar (71 percent), Alice in Wonderland (70 percent), and TRON: Legacy (82 percent). Furthermore, since the start of 2009, only one other wide-release 3-D movie has garnered a lower 3-D percentage, and that was last year’s Despicable Me with 45 percent. But Despicable Me can hide behind the defense that many young kids don’t like wearing 3-D glasses — an argument that holds less weight for the more adult (and PG-13 rated) Pirates. The 3-D numbers for Pirates appear particularly dire when you discount ticket prices and look solely at attendance figures. According to BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield, 63 percent of Pirates‘ audience opted for the flat 2-D version, despite the fact that roughly half of the movie’s screens were projecting it in 3-D.

So what happened, Jack Sparrow? One possible explanation is that audiences could be suffering from 3-D fatigue. Back in 2009, studios released about one 3-D film per month. Compare that to this year’s month of May, which has seen a major 3-D release every weekend. “Part of this is the competitive nature of more films being released [in 3-D] today,” says Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution. Another factor that may be at play are those 3-D surcharges — are moviegoers starting to push back at the idea of paying significantly more for one extra dimension? At the AMC Century City theater in Los Angeles, a 3-D adult ticket costs $17.50 and a child ticket is $14.50. Thus, a family of four is looking at a $64 proposition — and that’s without popcorn, soda, and candy.

While both of those factors could have contributed to Pirates‘ underwhelming 3-D performance, they don’t explain why the movie’s three-dimensional portion was lower than other recent movies like Thor, which earned 60 percent of its gross from 3-D, or The Green Hornet (69 percent). Part of the problem could have been that Disney didn’t heavily advertise the 3-D aspect of Pirates. Disney’s commercials and trailers often mentioned the film’s 3-D component at the very end, as if it were a mere afterthought. As a result, moviegoers may have believed Pirates had undergone a quickie 3-D conversion, a la Clash of the Titans, when in fact the film had been shot with 3-D cameras.

However, the theory that may make the most sense is simply this: The prior Pirates movies were in 2-D. It’s one thing to launch a franchise with 3-D from the beginning, but it’s another to persuade audiences to make the switch four films in. Moviegoers had already spent 463 minutes with a 2-D Jack Sparrow — to the tune of $1 billion domestically — and many were seemingly fine with continuing the series that way. The third Chronicles of Narnia movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, suffered a similar fate last year. That movie was the franchise’s first to be presented in three dimensions, but 3-D showings only accounted for 54 percent of its opening. Some sequels can successfully add 3-D to the equation if it becomes their main selling point — see Jackass 3D and Saw 3D. But in the case of Pirates and Narnia, the new entries didn’t scream 3-D, making it harder for many moviegoers to justify paying the extra moolah.

“It’s going to ebb and flow on a picture-by-picture basis,” says Hollis. “But choice is good for moviegoers. There’s a percentage of the audience that doesn’t necessarily need 3-D, and they should have an option to not have to pay for it. And there are people who love their 3-D experience. We’re not going to release every one of our films in 3-D. But when you think about the tent poles and those broadest-reaching movies, to not make it in 3-D because there’s a slice of the audience that doesn’t like it in 3-D is counterintuitive.”

All eyes will now be on Paramount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Both films are being released in 3-D, despite the fact that their predecessors were shown in 2-D. And both studios are making a point to heavily promote their movies’ 3-D component. Maybe moviegoers will think Transformers and Harry Potter merit the 3-D experience more than Pirates did. Or maybe, like Pirates, a surprising amount of the audience will stick with the 2-D versions. Either way, expect box-office fireworks.

Pirates of the Caribbean
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