3-D surge may doom movie stars

Ever since the astounding grosses for “Avatar” started rolling in, Hollywood has been pretty much going gaga over 3-D. At a time when DVD revenues have been plummeting, who would’ve believed that 3-D would help save the studios’ bacon?

According to Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman, roughly 52% of the studio’s box-office take for this weekend’s “Clash of the Titans” was from 3-D ticket sales. According to industry marketers, the 3-D ticket price premium gave a huge boost to “Clash’s " $61.4-million box-office take, which would’ve been closer to $41.4 million if it was only playing in 2-D.

The film, which was retrofitted with 3-D at the last minute, inspired my colleague Kenny Turan to write that “Clash” could be “the first film to actually be made worse by being in 3-D.” The tech geeks seemed to agree. As Den of Geek’s Duncan Bowles put it in his review: “I have never been so insulted by such a criminal intent to rob the public.”

But I can pretty safely predict who are going to be the real haters when it comes to 3-D movies: movie stars. If there was ever a new technology that made movie stars feel even less indispensable and more outmoded than they already are, it would be 3-D. By definition, 3-D extravaganzas are genre films dominated by splashy computer-generated visual effects -- in other words, exactly the kinds of movies that don’t need a movie star in the first place.


Put yourself in the position of a studio executive, staring at your profit-and-loss statement, as you ponder what movies to greenlight for your 2012 slate. Even before “Avatar,” you were eager to avoid making pictures with movie stars, since most of the recent mega-hits (i.e., “Hangover,” “Star Trek” and “Transformers 2") had triumphed without any true movie stars while scads of movie-star vehicles had crashed and burned, notable examples being “Land of the Lost,” “State of Play,” “The Taking of Pelham 123" and “Imagine That.”

But now you are faced with greenlighting a drama, genre thriller or romantic comedy -- the three genres that rely the most heavily on movie stars to attract a sizable audience. And it turns out that those are also the three genres that lend themselves the least to 3-D treatment, since mania or not, no one is clamoring to see a Nancy Meyers comedy or a Clint Eastwood drama in shimmering 3-D. So when you start doing the math, you realize that it’s even harder to justify hiring a movie star, since those 2-D genres will now be competing against 3-D extravaganzas that can effortlessly rake in tens of millions more bucks at the box office simply from the $5 extra moviegoers will pay to see them.

In other words, it’s no longer a level playing field. You don’t need George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio to make “Cowboys and Aliens” or “Spider-Man 4" or “Happy Feet 2" or any of the other 3-D vehicles making their way through the system. In fact, why spend any money on a movie star when the vast majority of 3-D films already have their own built-in marketing hooks?

“If the business is bifurcating into small, under $30-million films largely financed by outside money and the big 3-D visual effects-driven studio tentpoles and franchises, where does that leave movie stars -- it leaves them in the lurch,” said one studio chieftain who asked to remain anonymous, saying he didn’t want to field a tsunami of grumpy phone calls from agents and managers already unhappy about seeing most of their clients taking huge pay cuts over the past year.

“3-D is great for everyone’s bottom line, but it’s just going to put more downward pressure on the movie-star business,” the chieftain added. “You can make so much more money with 3-D that it essentially puts a tax on 2-D dramas, romantic comedies and other projects, since they just won’t project the same kind of box-office potential.”

It’s actually a double whammy for movie stars, since it’s hard to imagine that Brad Pitt, Clooney or DiCaprio are clamoring to be in a 3-D movie in the first place. If DiCaprio wants to play J. Edgar Hoover in Eastwood’s upcoming biopic, he’s going to find himself working for even less money than he would have a year ago, since the 3-D Comic-Con movies are going to be viewed as the cash cows of the business for the foreseeable future.

James Cameron has loudly been complaining that Hollywood is getting it wrong, especially when studios keep telling filmmakers like Michael Bay that they want their franchise films to be hastily converted into 3-D. But if you study the history of the movie business, Hollywood is getting it right.

3-D might someday be an art form. But right now it’s a trend. And in Hollywood, judging from past experience, when a trend is red hot, you can bet that the money people will follow that trend everywhere, even if it eventually takes them sailing off a cliff.