James Cameron talks 3D at Summit

'Avatar' director pushes quality, claims biz not contracting

Audiences are right to push back against premium ticket prices for 3D, according to James Cameron, especially when it comes to converted 3D titles.

“The way it’s being done, it’s not 3D, it’s 2.2D, or 2.4D,” Cameron told the audience at Variety’s 3D Entertainment Summit.

Cameron knows a little something about conversion. He’s currently working with Fox to release a 3D version of his 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” a process costing the studio $18 million and a whole year’s time.

“I think we’re coming out with something that’s 90% of what it would have been if it was shot in 3D, but that’s not always being done,” the helmer said, noting that studios don’t often want to spend the money or the time on each conversion. “As a filmmaker, I would much rather shoot in 3D than convert to 3D to get an equal outcome.”

Cameron spoke to Variety’s David Cohen along with Vince Pace, with whom Cameron is a partner in the Cameron/Pace Group.

Whether to shoot in 3D or convert is often a budgetary question. Studios, Cameron says, often decide to shove conversion into the post process to shave money off the cost of a film.

“It’s being shoehorned into a post-production process, and there’s neither the time or the money to do it right,” Cameron said. “All of a sudden, the director is being told that the movie has to be in 3D but you can’t shoot it in 3D. That to me is a complete misapplication of 3D, because you’ve just taken away all the creativity you can have…at the stage of photography.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that conversion is less of an objective, automatic process than studios execs assume. “There’s not some magic wand software that does it,” Cameron said. “It’s a bunch of artists sitting at screens using their subjective judgment.”

Spending enough time and money to do 3D right is part of the Cameron/Pace business model. The duo are offering a certification program that aims to provide quality assurance for producers and studios. With the Cameron-Pace certification — which requires a commitment to use Cameron-Pace gear exclusively — a production company can promise that the company behind the 3D images in “Avatar” will be working with them. Evergreen Studios is the first to get the CPG certification.

“We compete against our own vision of what happens next,” Pace told the audience. “We’re like backyard drag racers. We build the car and then we race the car.”

The parallel to 3D’s path, Cameron said, is TV broadcasting. Networks forced the studios to stop making black and white films when they began to broadcast in color, an event which Cameron compares to shifts in the 3D landscape.

“At first it was just the big movies … then color TV came along and in one year, every movie was in color because they had to be, because they had no library value if they didn’t,” Cameron said. “It’s going to be the same thing (with 3D).”

That means more content available for home use in the near future. In fact, the broadcast potential for 3D pics over the next few years influenced how Cameron wanted to shoot the next installment of “Avatar.” The director originally wanted to shoot at 48 frames per second but ultimately decided on 60 fps when he realized that viewers would be able to view that in the home.

But the helmer doesn’t thinks 3D needs to be confined to big-budget pics. Using the technology sparingly in a drama, Cameron argued, could help the audience feel an intimacy with the characters they wouldn’t get in 2D. “For a relatively small cost, you’ve had an enormous impact on the audience. And I think that’s the thing that everybody have been missing.”

While those intimate moments exist in big studio films, they can be eclipsed by the action and flair of an “Avatar” or “Titanic” in 3D.

Like many speakers at the conference, Cameron and Pace pooh-poohed the notion that 3D isn’t doing well, arguing that the 3D box office is up 40% year over year for the past four years. In fact, with more 3D pics unspooling than ever before, some exhibs still don’t have enough screens equipped to show all the product available.

“The theaters, frankly, aren’t keeping up,” Cameron said, adding that the exhibitors are “cannibalizing business from each other,” forcing some of the 3D ticket sales to go to 2D screens.”We need to double down on the number of screens … (but) I think it’s a question of it being a growth pain and not a contraction,” he added.

“Perception and reality have diverged mostly as the result of the media trying to spin a story that’s a negative story,” Pace added.