3-D Sails Into the Past – and Future

“Avatar” may have lost the Oscar, but a 3-D version of “Titanic” is on tap, and even 3-D Final Four games are coming to theaters

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Will a 3-D "Titanic" sink or swim?

    At a recent showing of “Alice in Wonderland” in a New York City neighborhood movie theater, the signal to put on the 3-D glasses flashed before the coming attractions.

    Previews for “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Tron Legacy” and “Toy Story 3” – all upcoming 3-D prospective crowd-pleasers – followed.

    “The Hurt Locker” may have won the Best Picture Oscar, but “Avatar” is the flick whose impact is being most immediately felt – and potentially is far longer lasting.

    “Avatar” director James Cameron is even influencing himself: He told USA Today he’s working on a rerelease of his 1997 Best Picture blockbuster “Titanic” – this time in 3-D – to mark the maritime disaster’s 100th anniversary in 2012.

    It seems like 3-D is, well, coming right at us, from every direction. The Final Four will be shown in 3-D in theaters around the country, CBS announced last week. Panasonic and Samsung just unveiled 3-D TVs, and Sony is slated to release its first set in June as ESPN kicks off a 3-D channel with the World Cup opener.

    “We've demonstrated that the 3-D market is an extremely lucrative market and this is not a fad, this is not something that is going to go away,” Cameron told USA Today.

    Tim Burton’s oddly interesting “Alice in Wonderland,” which was converted from 2-D after it was filmed, notched a record box office opening for a 3-D movie – besting the debut of “Avatar,” already the highest-grossing movie of all time (with a big caveat). Movies shown in 3-D reportedly accounted for 11 percent of ticket sales in North America last year, representing more than $1 billion.

    But does seemingly every movie need to be in 3-D? And will home audiences, like Alice, take a leap of faith and plunk down big bucks for new TVs that might as well have tags demanding, “Buy me”?

    The market for 3-D TV is unclear, especially after millions of consumers already have invested in pricey flat-screen high-definition sets. It’s also uncertain how much 3-D content, beyond sporting events, will be available and how soon.

    Now Cameron’s plan to convert “Titanic” into 3-D raises questions that impact both the big and small screens: Will old movies and TV shows be turned into 3-D willy-nilly to meet a demand for content? 

    We saw a version of this show this before, in a sense, a quarter-century ago when Ted Turner started colorizing old black-and-white films for TV airings, spurring outrage among many filmmakers.

    Still, there’s something tantalizing about the thought of viewing “Star Wars” in 3-D – as long, as Cameron points out, that George Lucas oversees the conversion process.  It’s trickier, though, in the cases of older visual feasts – like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone With The Wind” – where the original directors aren’t around to make sure the vision is maintained.

    Rereleased 3-D versions of those classics would be a great way to bring young audiences into theaters, where such films are meant to be seen. But the effect wouldn’t be quite as grand on home screens – and there’s a danger we could be in for mass, schlock conversions of unworthy old movies and TV shows just to fill air time.

    “If you use some automated process or some cost-effective process… it’s going to look like crap,” Cameron told USA Today. “It's like colorization looked like crap.”

    In the meantime, we’ll see how the Final Four does in theaters, and whether folks who buy the first 3-D TVs in June are pleased with the World Cup coverage. Chances are, of course, that not every upcoming 3-D movie will resonate with audiences like “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

    By the time of the 2012 rerelease of “Titanic," we just might have a good idea of whether the 3-D is king of the entertainment world or whether that ship has sailed.

    Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.