Credit: WETA

All the way back in 2009, eager studio executives eyed Avatar‘s $2.8 billion worldwide gross and gushed “I see you” to the film’s groundbreaking 3-D technology. A few months later, Alice in Wonderland became a $1 billion hit, and before Johnny Depp had even wiped the makeup off his face, the industry had decided 3-D would be its savior.

Fox, Paramount, Disney, and Universal collectively shelled out $700 million to help equip theaters with new projectors, and the number of 3-D releases jumped from 20 in 2009 to 45 in 2011. Perhaps most importantly, audiences proved willing to pay an extra $3.50 per ticket, so Hollywood made a point of “enhancing” every film into a “premium” 3-D experience. Oh, what a difference four years makes: 3-D box office receipts are taking a serious tumble these days, and audiences are increasingly opting for cheaper 2-D tickets. So how did the format fall so far so fast?

The Hard Numbers

Up-charged tickets made up a full 71 percent of Avatar‘s 2009 opening-weekend gross of $77 million, and Alice in Wonderland (70 percent), TRON: Legacy (82 percent), and The Final Destination (70 percent) also got major boosts. Animated family movies have never done as well in the format, but even Toy Story 3 managed 60 percent in 2010. This summer a different tale has unfolded: During the 30-day span from June 21 to July 21, 3-D business hit a new low three separate times (that’s since 2009, when this new golden age began).

Only 31 percent of Monsters University‘s June 21 opening-weekend gross came from 3-D ticket sales. Two weeks later Despicable Me 2 dipped even lower, earning 27 percent. And two weeks after that, Turbo raced away with the new worst 3-D share, at 25 percent. The plunging figures for family movies are symptomatic of a bigger malaise across the spectrum. World War Z (34 percent), The Great Gatsby (33 percent), and R.I.P.D. (33 percent) have all been plagued by less dazzling 3-D grosses this summer. “2013 is the first year in which movies are consistently seeing 3-D shares below 40 percent,” says Ray Subers, editor of Box Office Mojo. July’s Pacific Rim has earned the season’s highest 3-D share, at 50 percent. That’s a solid number, but not one Warner Bros. would have bragged about two years ago.

Diagnosis: Fatigue

“Moviegoers have been burned too many times by inferior product,” says Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at box office tracking service Exhibitor Relations. His point underlines the difference between specifically crafted 3-D spectacles like Avatar and notorious post-conversion disasters like 2010’s Clash of the Titans. Even the most vocal cheerleader for the technology, Avatar director James Cameron, has spoken out about its overuse. “Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, and all those movies should not necessarily be in 3-D. If you spend $150 million on visual effects, the film is already going to be spectacular,” he recently said at a technology conference.

No matter the quality of the movies, it could just be that the novelty of 3-D has worn off. “I think there was a lot of overstatement at the beginning that this was going to be the way all movies should be,” says Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “So when things fell off from the 70-odd percent for Avatar, people were like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ Well, Avatar was an anomaly.”

Price is also a major factor in the format’s woes. Consumers have come to expect high-quality product when paying hefty surcharges on each ticket, and for many, 3-D fees no longer seem justified. Of course, RealD, America’s largest 3-D company, would never admit that. When asked about the format’s declining prospects, Rick Heineman, a spokesperson for RealD, sticks to script: “We believe the RealD 3-D experience is a better way to see a movie, and that there are audiences out there that are… choosing to see the movie in a premium format.”

The New Normal

Even if more audiences are eschewing 3-D, though, it won’t die at the box office anytime soon. “Let’s be frank,” says Bock. “The industry has pumped too much money into this to fail.” (TV, however, offers a reason to worry: In June ESPN announced the end of its 3-D channel in the U.S. shortly before the BBC put all of its 3-D plans “on hold.”) Theater owners have already invested in digital equipment and love the extra cha-ching. “Essentially, it’s an add-on,” says Corcoran. “Exhibitors are making more money per ticket on those 3-D showings. There isn’t a big extra expense for [them] in it.”

And at $10 to $20 million a pop, it’s still relatively cheap for studios to convert to 3-D. So even if a film suffers a poor 3-D share, a studio can earn back its investment fairly easily. Plus, as with all industry stories today, the booming international box office can’t be ignored. “Developing markets like China, Russia, and Brazil have seen major growth since Avatar in 2009,” says Subers. “3-D is a regular, accepted part of the experience for many of those moviegoers.”

You don’t need polarized glasses to see clearly what all this means. For now, the extra dimension is here to stay. So here’s our plea, Hollywood: Use 3-D much more effectively, and a little—no, a lot—more sparingly.

World War Z
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  • 116 minutes