Popularity of 3-D is affecting how screenplays are written

When Matt Pitts, a writer on “Fringe” and a former assistant to J.J. Abrams, recently began shopping his first film script to movie studios, he knew he had a marketable idea on his hands. The title of his screenplay, after all, was " Spring Break Zombie Cruise” and its storyline followed, well, just that.

But the prospect of flesh-eating creatures stalking beautiful young bodies wasn’t his script’s main hook. The element to catch a studio mogul’s eye? A plan to shoot the project in 3-D. “In my mind it just added that extra ounce of fun,” Pitts says.

Whether it’s young writers trying to sell their first movie or established filmmakers trying to make their 10th, there’s no savvier move these days than packaging your project as a 3-D film. Movie studios, even more than in two previous 3-D eras, have gone mad for the form, which in recent months has significantly boosted their box-office grosses. If you think we’ve already been inundated by 3-D with “Avatar” (which was shot in 3-D) and “Clash of the Titans” (which was converted later), get ready for a full-on deluge: nearly every big-budget holiday movie next year will be in 3-D, as will future films as diverse as the " Spider-Man” reboot, the Taylor Lautner action- comedy “Stretch Armstrong” and Martin Scorsese’s children’s-book adaptation “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”

But even as Hollywood goes z-axis crazy, many directors and writers are questioning the stampede. While they express a general enthusiasm for the form, they say executives don’t always grasp all the complexities of adding that extra dimension. As the 3-D storm continues to gather, they point out that 3-D will affect much more than whether a filmgoer picks up a pair of glasses: It will change what films get made, and even the very nature of cinematic storytelling.

“You build sequences differently when you know things have to pop out and jump at you,” says Kieran Mulroney, who with his wife, Michele, is writing the “Sherlock Holmes” sequel, which has been the subject of a number of 3-D conversations at studio Warner Bros. “I fear that if every movie becomes spectacle for the sake of spectacle, where does that leave the intimate conversation across the dinner table?”

Some high-profile filmmakers have been famously concerned about conversion, which takes footage that was shot in 2-D and turns it into 3-D. When New Line initiated several conversations about converting “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to 3-D, “we pushed back,” says director Samuel Bayer. “This was shot in 2-D and was meant to be shown in 2-D.” He added, “Just like I don’t want to see a lot of great movies remade” — alluding to the other Hollywood vogue — “I don’t want to see a lot of them in 3-D.”

Michael Bay, whose company produced “Nightmare,” has also been dubious of the conversion process, expressing skepticism about using it for his next “Transformers” picture. “The good 3-D movies will be the ones that are constructed that way in the first place,” says Bay producing partner Brad Fuller. (In a script for a potential “Friday the 13th” sequel, for instance, a kill scene was written involving a body on a zipline because the idea of a body sliding full-speed toward the audience was deemed particularly effective in 3-D.)

But the concerns go beyond conversion. There is much that is technically tricky about shooting in 3-D, including the clunky size of the cameras, which can make shooting in small spaces difficult. That’s the kind of aspect that directors — even those shooting in 3-D — worry that studios are missing. “A lot of the film community is underestimating how challenging this is,” says Neil Marshall, director of the acclaimed 2005 horror hit “The Descent,” who is now directing his first 3-D movie, “Burst,” which will be produced by Sam Raimi and Lionsgate. “It’s not just a gimmick you can slap on to sell a few more tickets.”

Even if it can be pulled off, creative types know that audiences will see their work differently. To watch a 3-D film is to experience a movie at a higher pitch, with objects and people flying off the screen. Even within genres that lend themselves to 3-D, such as horror, filmmakers worry about the sub-genres that are more 3-D-resistant, like a subtle ghost story. In a 3-D-crazed era, they fear that these movies will get made the wrong way or not be made at all.

“3-D continues to speak to the elimination of the middle creatively,” says Justin Marks, the writer on Disney’s former “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” project and Sony’s action film “Shadow of the Colossus.” “If you don’t have an action tentpole that can conceivably be thought of in 3-D, you may as well make small indie movies because the studios aren’t going to be that interested.”

Meanwhile, even the films suited to the immersiveness of 3-D could wind up assaulting audiences instead of pleasurably drawing them in. “I’m a little leery of what’s to come,” says Marcus Dunstan, who with partner Patrick Melton has written the past three movies in the “Saw” franchise and is writing the next one — which will, of course, be in 3-D. “Watching someone get punched repeatedly in the eye is going to be nauseating in 3-D.” (And when a “Saw” creator is worried about nausea, you know it could really turn your stomach.)

Dunstan, who worked on one of the first of the modern 3-D movies, the 2009 remake of “My Bloody Valentine,” also is concerned that a host of inferior movies get made simply because they can accommodate some 3-D shots. “When ‘Pulp Fiction’ came out, we suddenly saw all these movies with fractured narratives. We saw pale imitations. And I’m afraid we’re going to see that with 3-D.”

Dunstan and others remain, on balance, enthusiastic about the new possibilities 3-D opens up. If nothing else, they’re willing to give it a shot — few filmmakers these days will stand on ceremony if a studio is prepared to greenlight their movie. As Marks says, “3-D can draw enthusiasm for a project the studios might not have otherwise paid much attention to.”

It’s of course understandable why studios are obsessed with 3-D. As television screens get bigger and studio releases hit DVD and video on-demand sooner, executives believe it’s imperative to keep the theatrical experience one step ahead (even as 3-D blockbuster “Avatar” seeks to elevate the home-viewing experience with its Blu-Ray release last Thursday). They’re drawn to the idea of a movie that puts a filmgoer practically inside the screen.

And creating opportunities for immersion is quickly becoming second nature to some screenwriters. “Just like a sitcom writer tries to have three laughs per page, I tried to have a 3-D moment every 8-10 pages,” Pitts says of his method for writing the “Spring Break” film.

Those 3-D moments may be even trickier to pull off in other genres, but it hasn’t stopped some from contemplating it. At least one major studio has said privately it would consider making a romantic comedy in 3-D. That represents a kind of dimensionality creep that particularly concerns some directors, who say movies in many genres are best watched at a remove. “I don’t want to watch ‘Precious’ in 3-D,” director Marshall says. “That’s a movie that’s hard enough to watch in 2-D.”

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