Format wins over filmmakers despite high costs

The 3D format is not only a big issue for the producers behind blockbusters, toons and genre films, but also for the documentary film community.

Peter Hamilton, a TV business consultant who also runs DocumentaryTelevision.com, a website dedicated to news about factual shows, asked doc shingle Hoff Prods. to estimate the costs involved in producing a 3D show compared with an equivalent show in 2D HD. Hamilton will be leading a panel at Sunny Side of the Doc about 3D factual content.

He had already commissioned such a report from Hoff in 2010, but new figures show that although the cost of 3D has dropped by 6.6%, it is still substantially higher than 2D HD. Hoff analyzed the cost of producing a hypothetical, one-hour program for cable TV. The 2D HD costs were $325,000 against $621,000 for 3D — a difference of $296,000.

The reasons for this difference range across the production process. When shooting in 3D, for example, it’s necessary to have two extra crew members: a digital imaging technician and a stereographer. It also took twice as long to shoot the same show — 16 days for 3D against eight for 2D HD.

But despite the high costs, networks have continued to raise their investments in 3D content, because they believe that, although the format is likely to always be a niche in the TV universe now, it’ll pay off in the long run.

“Consumers are prepared to pay a premium for 3D programming and that could be quite profitable, despite these costs,” Hamilton says.

As well as sports, movies and live music, factual content is an important part of 3D offerings. Although much of the factual output is nature documentaries, programmakers are getting more ambitious and have started to experiment with new forms of content.

3D channel 3Net, which is run by Discovery Communications, Imax and Sony, recently greenlit a four-part series from Towers Prods. on the American Civil War, “The Civil War 3D,” which incorporates historical re-creations shot in 3D.

BSkyB, under 3D chief John Cassy, captured the first BAFTA for a 3D program earlier this year for “Flying Monsters 3D,” which was presented by David Attenborough. The series from Atlantic Prods. re-creates the lost world of the pterosaurs, a prehistoric winged creature. Attenborough and Atlantic are now making another 3D film for BSkyB about penguins.

Most 3D productions are co-productions because of the high cost, but expenses will continue to fall, not just because the equipment will get cheaper, but also because the producers and the networks are learning as they go, and finding out how to work more efficiently. “The more experience you have, the more nimble you’ll be when you are at the location,” says Hamilton.

Hoff’s main conclusion was that careful planning was paramount.

“One of the most important means of achieving cost efficiencies is through thorough pre-planning with respect to scouting and so on,” says Hamilton.

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