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Choose: Storyteller or Amusement Park?

By July 17, 2008Editorial

By Neil Schneider

A few nights ago, I took the time to see Journey to the Center of the Earth in stereoscopic 3D (S-3D). I have to say that my opinion of the film is similar to what the other reviewers had to say – the movie is entertaining in 3D, but had it been in 2D, it wouldn’t be as memorable.

I’d like to discuss this movie from a business point of view because I disagree with some of the marketing spin I’ve been reading for this movie. For example, Michael Lewis, Real D’s CEO is quoted as being “thrilled” that it has earned over 3:1 revenue in 3D showings versus 2D showings, and fellow advocates are talking about the immersive nature of S-3D and how impressed audiences are by it. Don’t be surprised if you hear a line or two about how S-3D miraculously converts a mediocre movie into a blockbuster success!

I find myself reading the numbers differently. At $20.6 million in its opening weekend including both 2D and 3D showings, I think it’s premature to pat ourselves on the back – especially when you figure that the movie cost a relatively modest $60 million to make and will have progressively declining sales as it sits in theaters. I am also unconvinced that more 3D screens would have driven sales because the movie’s opening weekend viewing wasn’t filled to capacity.

I appreciate that Real D has had some success in demonstrating a demand for 3D, but it’s not enough of a victory. I am very concerned that we need to be more careful with these self congratulatory messages because they mark the first deep trap on the road leading to the “3D is a gimmick” stigma – a stigma we are only starting to escape. Let me explain why:

First, I guarantee that with every visit to a 3D movie theater, moviegoers are going to become more and more accustomed to the 3D experience, and they will expect far more from the films’ stories than their visual special effects. This will happen in months, not years.

We’ve seen this before in conventional 2D movies. Would 1977’s Star Wars have stood the tests of time had its entire entertainment value been placed on its revolutionary special effects? Is it not the story of a young Luke Skywalker learning the ways of the force that we remember most?

In retrospect, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace demonstrates how exponentially better special effects do not necessarily translate into an equally well received film. While Phantom Menace made oodles of money, it will always be remembered as the blemish in the Star Wars legacy that the follow-up movies could only partially erase through progressively better storytelling – not special effects (Jar-Jar still lives, by the way!).

Frankly, I’m not even sure how I feel about the term “3D” being used in the titles of movies. 3D is not the story, it’s just one of the tools used to make the story effective. Wouldn’t it be odd if a movie was called “Star Wars Surround Sound”? I think we are setting ourselves up for trouble when the technology tool is ranked alongside the story.

If Journey to the Center of the Earth was an avant-garde experiment in 3D where the story was rock solid and the 3D wasn’t quite right, then we could view the movie as a great innovation or 3D experiment to be proud of. However, the story and characters were too flawed and flat, so I think it defeats the purpose to congratulate ourselves for selling more tickets and preaching about the benefits of 3D based on technology alone. We need to do the opposite!

After watching this movie and seeing how our industry colleagues responded to it publicly, I’m left with one question: are we storytellers or amusement park entertainers?

Storytellers are the skilled masters who share tales that are remembered for generations. Memorable tales like E.T., Star Wars, Jaws, Toy Story, Titanic, Alien(s), Jurassic Park, and countless more. All these stories used the most modern special effects available, but are not remembered just for their effects.

Amusement park entertainers create the fast action experiences that we remember most for exciting our senses through whatever tools are available, but not with the memorable purpose of a storyteller.

MTBS is very much about encouraging S-3D as a tool for the storyteller, and I think that patting our industry on the back for making money just by having 3D on the screen is more the path of the amusement park entertainer. For stereoscopic 3D to be a long lived success in both the movie and gaming industries, it has to be viewed as a core benefit, not the main attraction.

Now, I know what my critics will say: “Neil! How dare you say this! You work in the video game business!”

I would argue that modern video games are as dependent on good storytelling as motion pictures. Every experience has to be hand crafted and woven together. It’s the story combined with the gaming experience that made successes out of Bioshock, Far Cry, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Crysis.

That said, stereoscopic 3D in gaming is a tool to enhance the immersion and visual beauty found in video games, and one day you will see MTBS certification logos on your favorite titles so gamers can set their S-3D compatibility expectations – but I never want to see “Bioshock 3D” or “Far Cry 3D” because that is not what we are about.

If we can walk away with one parallel to avoid, it’s the Gold Rush experience. The last thing the 3D movie business needs are a bunch of risk taking hungry miners hunting for gold, with the only money makers being the hotel clerks, the mining equipment makers, and the burlesque house. To avoid this paradigm, the 3D movie industry has to be story driven, not effects driven – and the number of 3D theaters in the world has nothing to do with this critical element.

If indeed we are out of this “3D is a Gimmick” stigma, we need to acknowledge our challenges, and advocating 3D also means being selective on the quality we are working to promote.

I think we can walk away with some important lessons from Journey to the Center of the Earth, and I look forward to future movies spending as much if not more resources on good storytelling as they do on 3D special effects. Maybe someone will do a good 2D-3D conversion of Wall-E? That would make an incredible S-3D movie!

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