Leggy box office suggests format is growing up

Depending on the reports you read, 3D box office predicts either the slow death of the format or the eventual triumph of the 3D revolution.

There’s been pushback over pricing on 3D tickets, backlash over inferior 3D and enough variation in grosses and 3D shares for almost any spin.

But a close look at the existing data suggests the noise around 3D isn’t a death rattle but the sound of an infant format growing up.

The numbers show sturdy legs for 3D in holdover frames. In short, auds continue to prefer 3D if they think the movie and the 3D are worthy.

Most detailed box office reporting focuses on the opening weekend. But presentations by Screen Digest senior analyst Charlotte Jones have shown that 3D consistently holds better and plays longer than 2D, even though auds scrutinize 3D more closely than most other technical aspects of a pic.

Now moviegoers not only have to decide which movie to see, but what format in which to see it, and they are often swayed by word of mouth.

“I think there are two dynamics going on here,” Jones said. “The first is how that product is marketed as a 3D product. The more it is marketed as a 3D product, the higher the 3D ratio we see. But having a higher 3D ratio does not always mean greater box office success.”

That’s borne out by the box office data. “Alice in Wonderland,” “Step Up 3D” and “Piranha 3D,” all marketed as 3D experiences, had opening weekend 3D shares of 80%, 81% and 95%, respectively. But only “Alice” was a hit. (See “3D: Drawing a Crowd?” on next page.)

“Alice’s” 3D share declined after its March 5 debut, but it had only three clear weeks before the arrival of “How to Train Your Dragon.” “Dragon’s” share, in turn, declined after the arrival, a week later, of “Clash of Titans.”

Despite competition for screens, most 2010 3D titles roughly held steady with the format beyond opening weekend, according to studio figures. A few even exceeded their debut 3D share in cumes. “Despicable Me,” which launched during a crowded mid-summer frame with “Toy Story 3″ and “The Last Airbender” still on 3D screens, had an opening 44% 3D share, indicating a small share of tickets sold were 3D. By late August, that 3D share had nudged up to 46% of its $231 million North American total. During that time, no 3D tentpoles had opened, clearing the way for “Step Up 3D” (released Aug. 6) and “Piranha” (released Aug. 20) to add 3D screens and maintain their shares in holdover weekends.

There may have been a time when 3D alone was enough to lift a pic to hit status. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” far outstripped expectations, in part because it played 3D screens with little or no competition for nearly two months.

Now there are more screens but also more releases. Competition is much stiffer. Jones said, “We’re seeing audiences become more discerning, more critical, of where they are willing to pay for a 3D experience.”

“Clash” and “Airbender,” both much-ballyhooed live-action tentpoles, met scathing reviews for their 3D. Their 3D ratio started in the mid-50s, indicating more tickets sold for 2D than 3D from the outset.

3D box office is open to interpretation — and misinterpretation — because hard numbers are scarce, and there are many variables: the increasing number of 3D screens, the increasing number of 3D releases, the erratic 3D release schedule and the uneven quality of the movies.

While studios do provide 3D to 2D gross ratios, they don’t release admissions figures, and there is no industrywide data on how many 3D seats are available each weekend, or what portion of those seats are filled.

Until more detailed data is available, expect to keep hearing cheers from Pollyannas and wails from naysayers.

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