It’s been over six months since the last 3D Blu-ray release – and it feels like a physical media format with a bleak future.

It was just under a year ago that Universal Pictures earned the ire of cinema chains worldwide when it decided to dramatically alter its release strategy its animated sequel Trolls World Tour.

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The movie, which it inherited when it bought up DreamWorks Animation, had been all set for a cinema release in time for Easter 2020, and if you look at the buses of the UK in January 2021, some of them are still adorned with promotional material for it.

Universal, of course, decided to send the film directly to premium video on demand as the world went into lockdown. It made prints available for cinemas if they wanted them, but Trolls World Tour would also be available to stream at home – if you were willing to stump up the initial £15.99 price for a 48 hour digital ‘rental’.

The furore that followed seems rather quaint ten months or so on. But also, it’s worth noting Trolls World Tour currently has a second footnote in recent film history too. That come its eventual physical disc release in the summer 2020, it stands as the last film to get a 3D Blu-ray release in the UK.

Trolls world tour poster image

The 3D Blu-ray format has always been on the niche side of the physical disc market, but for a little while, it threatened to be a sizeable one. The natural evolution of the cinema 3D explosion that (temporarily) followed the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, the first 3D Blu-ray disc was Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. For much of the following decade, the majority of new TV sets would be sold with some form of 3D functionality. Furthermore, 3D Blu-ray discs climbed to around 15% of sales for some titles. Given that the discs came at a premium price, that’s a number that studios were happy to support (although the base cost of mastering a 3D Blu-ray is higher).

But then the not-very-big bubble started to burst.

Once again, cinema took the lead. You don’t have to spend too long in Google to find articles on how the big screen 3D boom was running out of steam just a year or two after the release of Avatar. It didn’t stop the releases coming in the years that followed, but even passionate advocates of the format acknowledged that some studios and some releases had treated 3D as a golden goose, rather than taking proper care with the presentation of the movies concerned.

By 2017, not only had the number of physical releases started to dwindle, but so had many of the statistics as to the sales for the format. Studios had eyed 3D Blu-ray as a premium format (and for a while it certainly was), that could potentially plug some of the gap felt by the decline of the physical disc market. Yet audience enthusiasm was far below industry hopes.

Furthermore, supply and visibility fell. Too many buyers of 3D televisions clearly weren’t using the 3D functionality. On top of that, retail support was mixed. Actually finding a 3D Blu-ray in stores in the States was reportedly becoming something of a dark art, and in the UK I remember watching over months as the 3D section of my local HMV began to shrink. In America, as the releases narrowed, the odd inverse situation of US buyers having to import from the UK became more common than I’d ever expect to see. Especially when it was for Hollywood movies.

Over the last year or two, it’s just been Universal and Disney left supporting the format regularly with new releases. And if buyers can’t see the films they want in 3D, then what incentive is left to invest in it for them? In the UK, I count six 3D Blu-rays released in total in 2020, the last of which was Trolls World Tour on July 27th.

Clearly one factor here is the pandemic, and the drying up of new theatrical releases. Had Disney been able to release its movies as usual over the past year, then perhaps we’d have seen a 3D Blu-ray of Soul by now.

Yet now we’ve actually had the announcement of Soul’s physical disc release in March of 2021, and a 3D version is not being offered. There had been hopes that Wonder Woman 1984 might be offered as a 3D Blu-ray too, but again, the announcement of that has come and gone on disc, and it’s a no-no.

It’s telling that theatrical 3D releases are now very much the exception rather than the norm, and the discs have long since followed suit. Yet still: there’s still some support for 3D on the big screen, at least when cinemas are open.

Marvel’s Black Widow is expected to be available in a 3D version when it eventually makes it to general release, and perhaps a disc version will follow there. The excellent Blu-ray forum lists The Croods: The New Age from DreamWorks as potentially getting a 3D disc too. But it’s notable we’re scrabbling around to find signs of new releases now. It seems just a matter of time before support for the format is withdrawn altogether.

The potential nail in the coffin here was the emergence of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc format. Few believe we’ll ever see another physical disc format after this one, and 4K has thus emerged to take its place as the premium option of choice. Its sales are still on the niche side, but it’s carving a bigger market share than 3D Blu-ray did. Furthermore, it’s an easier sell: better picture and sound quality. 3D tends to be pretty binary: you either want it or you don’t. Few, meanwhile, are likely to be averse to a better resolution picture on the surface, whether the want to support 4K discs or not.

3D Blu-ray isn’t completely dead, it should be noted. In Germany for instance, the format continues to enjoy some popularity, but at this moment in time – early February 2021 – there’s not a single upcoming release listed for the UK. New 3D Blu-ray players aren’t heading our way (although there’s existing models out there easily enough), and I can’t remember the last time I saw 3D used as a feature to sell a television set.

If there’s going to be any kind of turnaround – and I don’t see it personally – then the whole 3D project needs the kind of boost it got when James Cameron resurrected it with Avatar over a decade ago. Cameron of course is beavering away on umpteen Avatar sequels, the first of which we might finally be able to get to see at the end of 2022. Will that be enough? Given that the contraction of 3D sales is coming at the same time as an ongoing decline in physical discs, it feels the longest of long shots.

It’s not for me or this site to call game over on 3D Blu-ray, just to observe that if its fortunes are to be turned around, it’s going to need a hell of a lot more support than it’s getting at the moment. For the minute, it you retain an interest in the format, then it’s worth keeping an eye on the Blu-ray forum devoted to the format, here.

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