Not every filmmaker is a fan of 3D cinema technology. Some, like JJ Abrams, have argued that 3D films do little to enhance the cinematic experience (“When you put the glasses on, everything gets dim”). Others don’t like the trouble of shooting with 3D cameras.
Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight Batman franchise, is one of the most outspoken critics. “The question of 3D is a very straightforward one,” he said in an interview back in 2012. “I never meet anybody who actually likes the format and it’s always a source of great concern to me when you’re charging a higher price for something that nobody seems to really say they have any great love for.”
Chinese moviegoers, however, have had a strong affinity for all things 3D since James Cameron’s Avatar became a box office phenomenon in 2007. Its success prompted cinema operators to embrace the format with gusto – over 80% of the screens installed in the past decade were equipped with 3D projection technology.
Film studios were more than happy to feed the frenzy, offering blockbuster after blockbuster in 3D, even when the same films were available in a conventional flat version.
For instance, 2012 (2009), Looper (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013) were all shown in 3D in China, while the rest of the world watched them without the funny glasses, says Dushe Movie, a popular film blog.
But as Universal Pictures has learned, for some of these films that extra dimension can be one too many. The studio recently found itself at the centre of a social media storm with the release of the 3D version of Jason Bourne, the fifth instalment of the Bourne franchise starring Matt Damon and actress Alicia Vikander. Despite a strong debut of Rmb78.4 million ($11.8 million) last Tuesday – more than four times The Bourne Legacy’s opening day in 2014 – sales tumbled by more than a third the following day as complaints about the 3D conversion went viral in social media.
Many moviegoers complained that the 3D version of the film had left them feeling dizzy and nauseous. “I really felt sick during the action sequence when I watched it in 3D,” one audience member posted on weibo. “I walked out before the film finished because I couldn’t stand torturing myself any longer.”
“The handheld camera work and extremely fast-paced action makes me want to throw up,” another vented. “And when I went to the bathroom, everyone around me was puking.”
Industry insiders also questioned whether the visual effects were necessary. After all, Jason Bourne wasn’t even shot with 3D cameras. Small wonder, then, that some called the 3D effects “fake”, accusing Universal of adding them to justify the premium-priced tickets that Chinese cinemas were charging.
“Another case of forcing 3D films on the audience. I am starting a campaign to boycott fake 3D features, is anyone with me?” the screenwriter Li Zhenghu wrote on his personal weibo.
“In most overseas countries and regions, Bourne was shown in 2D. The 3D special effects that are shown in the China version are only added in post-production to be ‘specially tailored’ for our market. These tactics to boost the box office have become something of a norm in China,” agreed China News Service.
Another problem: the original – and cheaper – version of the film in 2D was hard to find. China News Service estimates that only 20% of the country’s movie screens were dedicated to the 2D format, with the rest all in 3D.
Amid the criticism, Universal moved quickly into damage control mode, issuing a statement that it was working with its Chinese distributors China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution to arrange more 2D screenings of the film.
By the end of the week, there were 8,000 screens dedicated to the original version, four times more than in previous days, says Entgroup.
To be fair, the commercial power of 3D is hard to argue with. Guangzhou Daily says the cost to add the 3D effects is around $5 million for Hollywood blockbusters. Tickets for 3D films, meanwhile, typically carry a premium of at least Rmb10-20. For the most popular films, it can mean a boost of over Rmb100 million in ticket sales.
Still, as Universal has learned, not every film is suited to the format. “Intense action sequences, a lot of close-ups, and fast edits – these are all the elements a 3D film should avoid,” says Zhang Xiaobei, a producer. “But they are also the very same elements that truly define the Bourne franchise. By forcing the 3D special effects on the film, the studio has completely ruined the cinematic experience for us and the hard work of Paul Greengrass [the director] and Matt Damon.”
But don’t expect this to mean the end of 3D in the world’s fastest growing film market. China’s biggest cinema chain Wanda has just announced that it will build 4,000 3D screens in its cinemas across the country over the next four years. The deal, forged with the US-based screen provider RealD, which it claims is the largest 3D screen installation in history.
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