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Can 3D Save Movies?

COVID is killing the theatrical release. Part of saving movie theaters might be re-embracing—God help us—3D.
August 16, 2020
Can 3D Save Movies?
This dystopian future is actually the *best-case* scenario. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

On the latest episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood (Subscribe! Leave a review!), I talked to Tony Davis. He’s an electrical engineer who has spent the last decade or so working on 3D technology for RealD, where he headed the technology group, and his own company, Tessive. If you’re into esoteric concerns like “projector brightness” and the effects of popcorn grease on digital projectors—things that should concern any fan of the theatrical experience!—it is a really interesting chat.

It is worth thinking at greater length about one thing in particular Tony said, and that’s the ability of 3D to serve as a sort of differentiator. Something you can get going out to the big screen that you can’t really get at home, an experience that makes it worth schlepping to the multiplex rather than waiting through the (ever-shrinking) theatrical window for movies to show up on the 4K big screen in your living room.

He highlighted one outside-the-box idea that is worth special consideration. Rather than premium large-format experiences (e.g., IMAX or Dolby Atmos) that are incredibly expensive to set up—in terms of retrofitting enormous auditoriums with new chairs, new screens, and new projectors—the big chains should consider premium small-format experiences.

In the before-time, the long-long-ago, your average major release got about two weekends in the big auditoriums with the nicest setups before moving into the hinterlands: the dreaded Auditorium 16, as Tony puts it on the podcast. We’ve all been to Auditorium 16. It’s the one at the end of the hall, on the right, way in the back, near the exits. It’s a shoebox. The screen is probably dirty. If you’re lucky, only one of the speakers is blown. There’s no way the masking system will work, and if the picture’s in focus you’re ahead of the curve.

Auditorium 16 sucks.

But Tony suggests refurbishing Auditorium 16 in a way that doesn’t suck. Make it a shoebox for Louboutins. Because the auditorium is smaller, it will cost less to put in nice seats. Because the screen is smaller you can put in a cheaper high-powered projector that delivers a much better image: brighter, crisper, cleaner, the sort that would work great for 3D but also just makes regular 2D pop. Projectors scale down in price pretty well, according to Tony: lighting up a smaller screen is proportionally cheaper than lighting up a big one with the new generation of laser-powered projectors.

Now look: I’m a 3D skeptic. I’ve long been a 3D skeptic. I’m not alone in this:

(Source: MPA)

Even as the global box office increased as a whole from 2016 to 2019, 3D not only lost market share, fewer dollars were spent on 3D movies year-to-year, period. The drop in 3D revenue in recent years has occurred in large part because the studios have poisoned the well by pushing out so many shoddy 3D products, quick cash grabs that offer no discernible increase in the viewing experience while also draining pocketbooks. But when 3D is done well—when James Cameron is at the helm of an Avatar or running point on an Alita; when Ang Lee is experimenting with HFR in Gemini Man or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—it is, at least, an interesting element. It’s an artful element, something that undoubtedly alters the viewing experience.

Whether that’s worth the extra money is a personal decision: Tony says that, roughly speaking, 20 percent of the audience is Always 3D and 30 percent is Never 3D. This might overstate the Always 3D camp slightly, but it still leaves a big group of customers who are willing to give the format a shot under the right conditions: for a movie that treats 3D not as a cash grab, but as an artistic element. And it’s the sort of thing that, really, you can only experience in a movie theater with a good setup.

Can 3D save movie theaters? Well . . . no. I remember when Jeffrey Katzenberg pitched me on this notion 11 years ago: wasn’t the case then, isn’t the case now. There aren’t enough good 3D movies made every year and there are too few auditoriums that make the experience worthwhile. I guarantee you AMC isn’t banking on 3D pulling its fat out of the fire as it limps open domestically. But can it be an element of saving movie theaters, one small piece of the puzzle—alongside premium large-format venues, superior concession options, well-stocked bars, highly curated screening choices, and that ever-present human need for communal viewing—that helps save movie theaters?

I don’t see why not.

Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow, the new indie flick from Neon (the studio that brought us Parasite) and writer/director Amy Seimetz on VOD platforms now, is one of those movies that’s being done few favors by the (limited) publicity campaign it’s getting. The trailer, rife with images of pulsating red blood cells and other colorful, viscous liquids, promises “a gripping apocalyptic thriller” that is “totally terrifying” because it “flirts with psychological horror and absurdist comedy.”

This is . . . misleading. In the aforementioned long-long-ago, this is the sort of movie I’d have been very curious to see a CinemaScore for: There’s one thing audiences hate above all else, and that’s being misled. The only reason I don’t say it’s an outright lie is the suggestion at the end that it “flirts with . . . absurdist comedy.”

She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t just flirt with absurdist comedy, it is, at its heart, absurdist comedy. It’s an existential meditation on grappling with, well, not death, exactly, but the realization of death, the understanding that we’re all going to die. It’s about coming to grips with mortality in a world where we’ve all lost our bearings, untethered from the shore of normalcy and drifting off into oblivion. What would you do if you had one day left? Who would you spend your final hours with? How much will you regret your lonely existence—childless or without a partner or with a partner you can’t stand—as you depart this plane of existence?

Amy (Kate Lyn Shell) believes she is going to die tomorrow. She’s convinced of it, down to her bones; when she thinks about it, she sees flashes of blue and red, a signal that she has been transported into memory to think about her life and her choices. Her certainty is contagious: After telling her friend Jane (Jane Adams) about the premonition, Jane becomes convinced. And Jane convinces Susan and Jason and Brian and Tilly (Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, and Jennifer Kim, respectively), all of them experiencing the same red and blue flashes as they accept in their hearts that they too shall die. So on and so forth, throughout the movie.

She Dies Tomorrow is low-key funny throughout, from Amy’s obsession with what will happen to her body after she dies (urn shopping is, somehow, the least morbid version of what she has planned for herself) to Brian and Tilly’s realization that now, finally, is the time to break off their going-nowhere relationship. Indeed, Tilly’s reason for wanting out transcends “low-key funny” into “laugh-out-loud funny.”

All of which is to say that She Dies Tomorrow is most definitely not a horror movie. It’s a morbid, dark comedy, a feminine counterpart to Tyler Durden’s command in Fight Club that “First you have to give up, first you have to know . . . not fear, but know . . . that someday you’re gonna die,” one with a handful of arthouse flourishes. Seimitz plays with time and structure here in a way that keeps us guessing as to when and where we are, exactly, without confusing the audience. Aural cues are key, connecting scenes across timescapes, as is a certain willingness to just give yourself over to the picture and its conceit.

Assigned Viewing: Candyman

Now streaming on Netflix—though I watched Arrow’s excellent (out-of-region) Blu-ray release—make sure to check out Candyman ahead of the Jordan Peele-produced remake hitting theaters in the . . . near-term future, I guess?

Coming in on the late end of the slasher boom that built up in the 1980s and was put to rest by Scream in the mid-to-late 1990s, Candyman was underappreciated upon release, dismissed as a Halloween/Nightmare/Friday clone. But it’s a canny bit of filmmaking, a pre-Scream meta-consideration of the ways in which stories can color reality (and reality can color our perception of stories) along with a sotto voce consideration of race, housing, and gentrification that never overwhelms the plot with point-making.

I’m always right, as those who follow me on Twitter already know, but I’m also happy to hear from people who are wrong. If you have questions, comments, or complaints, drop me a line by responding to this email. And if you’re tired of hearing from me, just click on that “update preferences” button at the bottom of this missive. —SB

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association