3D screenings reappeared in cinemas over the last week or two – but it’s going to be on Avatar 2 to bring 3D back with a vengeance.

Blink and you might have missed them, but some 3D screenings have been back in cinemas over the last week or two. Remember those?

Not only that, they’ve reportedly been selling really rather well. Not at the levels of old, but still at levels worthy of note.

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Unannounced then, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness became the first blockbuster in a couple of years to offer 3D screenings when it was released back at the start of May. No fanfare at all – at least not that I say – but perhaps surprisingly, the take-up wasn’t bad. According to a report published in the US, some 10% of ticket sales for the film were for 3D screenings. Those screenings came with a premium of a couple of dollars on the price, and it was a bit of useful extra coin for cash-strapped (ahem) Disney.

This is a small yet notable turnaround. At a point when multiplexes have been decrying the apparent lack of big blockbuster movies and programming Doctor Strange 2 back to back, here was an opportunity to squeeze a little bit more per ticket from everyone who wanted to see the film.

The experiment – and given how long it’s been since we’ve had a major movie released in 3D, it’s hard to call it anything but – was a success albeit a small-scale one.

But also, this is clearly the tease leading up to the main attraction.

Avatar 2

James Cameron making Avatar: The Way Of Water.

The 3D boom of the 2010s was, after all, fuelled by James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar. Even in the lead up to that, there were still signs that 3D was about to have one of its cyclical resurfacings. Brendon Fraser had headlined a remake of Journey To The Center Of The Earth, that was released in 3D and crossed $100m at the US box office. But it was the $2bn+ grosses of Avatar, aided by people being willing to stump up extra to see the movie in 3D, that were the metaphorical gamechanger.

Multiplexes scrambled to accommodate 3D technology and ordered enormous quantities of plastic glasses, and we lined up en masse to buy them.

You probably know what happened next. Hollywood has always had the unerring ability to sniff out a money making opportunity as if it was a particularly pungent fart in a particularly small car. But the way it went about killing its latest golden goose at speed was something to behold. A couple of terrible metaphors in one paragraph there, and you’re very welcome.

Whilst in the years following Avatar there were films that made solid use of 3D (Gravity, How To Train Your Dragon), this particular land rush was defined by the ones that didn’t. In particular, the curse of the post-production bolt on, where a bunch of big movies had 3D added to them long after photography was over, usually to piss-poor effect.

No film epitomised this more than Clash Of The Titans, the 2010 remake already weighed down by the groundbreaking tagline ‘Titans Will Clash’. The movie hit big, but its release date was pushed back by a few weeks so that a slapdash 3D add-on could be stuck onto the film in the backrooms of a post-production house, much to the horror of its director, Louis Leterrier. The movie duly sold lots of 3D tickets, but at the cost of an immediate sense of badwill towards the format.

It nonetheless took time for 3D to dwindle, but dwindle it did. As Jeffrey Katzenberg – who at DreamWorks Animation had been embracing 3D – would remark in 2016, “we blew it”. He argued that “it was game-changing for the industry. When we gave them an exceptional film that was artistic and creative and celebrated, people were happy. Then, others came along and took the low road and gimmickized it. Instantly we lost good will”.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (3)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

That good will hasn’t returned. The 3D Blu-ray format has burned out. 3D televisions are very much the exception rather than the norm. Fewer and fewer films were being released with a 3D option, to the point where 3D screenings were extinguished altogether. Instead, the onus shifted more  towards the likes of IMAX and gimmicks such as 4DX to bring in a premium on a ticket price.

Yet occasionally popping up in interviews was a little suggestion that the lights weren’t entirely out. After all, the father of modern day 3D cinema, James Cameron, was back making movies. He’s deep in production on four Avatar sequels, each of which will arrive in 3D. The early talk of Avatar 2 – now entitled Avatar: The Way Of Water – was of it being available in 3D without the need for glasses. That’d remove for many a key obstacle with regards 3D screenings.

The pace of technological change hasn’t quite kept up with Cameron’s ambition for 3D there, but there’s also little doubt he’ll put quite the spectacle on the screen. He’s built the film from the ground up, once again, with 3D in mind. And in December, we finally get to see it.

But Avatar: The Way Of Water itself comes with challenges. Is there sufficient appetite for the film itself, over a decade after the release of the original? I’d suggest it’d be bold to bet against it, but there’s not the certainty there perhaps should be about the sequel to the highest grossing non-sequel of all time at the global box office.

This isn’t a segue either. It’s hard to lose the feeling that if 3D is to have the proper resurgence Hollywood wants, that the Avatar franchise will once again be pivotal to it. There’s no other film on the horizon that’s so openly 3D – as opposed to Strange’s almost 3D by stealth – and there’s in fact no other film on the release roster outside of the Avatar universe known to be planning a 3D release at all.

What we’ve seen with Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, as was alluded to in The Hollywood Reporter’s piece, was that it was a little, quiet test then. The first steps in the reintroduction of 3D to mainstream cinema. Usually, 3D comes in cycles some two to three decades apart. The challenge Hollywood is facing here is trying to get people re-interested in a format which happily burned consumers less than ten years ago.

Avatar 2

Avatar: The Way Of Water

Cinema managers aren’t reporting people banging the counters demanding 3D screenings (they’re too busy fending off parents complaining they can’t take a ten-year old to see The Batman), and the goal now is to make people interested again. To shake away the negativity and cash grab mentality around the format, to use it in a way – as in films such as Gravity and Life Of Pi – to offer some kind of enhancement.

It’s been a while since that happened. There will have been cautious optimism over the 3D numbers these past few weeks, but Disney – the firm now handling this particular grenade – knows the challenge ahead is a very tricky one. Once customer confidence is lost, it’s hard to win it back. But at a time when cinemas are struggling for revenues, the extra cash brought in from a 3D sale would be particularly welcome.

All eyes on the end of the year then, and to see if James Cameron can make lightning strike again. If he does, expect another Clash Of The Titans remake in due course. If it doesn’t? Well, crikey. It may yet be another few decades until the next resurgence after all…

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