Somewhere in the past year or so, it seems as though every studio exec has decided to greenlight one or more blockbuster in 3D, using a pretty impressive technology that employs polarised glasses to give a reasonably convincing illusion of depth. … And the 3D is … nice. … But I’m sceptical. … Up is a tremendous movie; it made me laugh and cry, and was intended to be seen in 3D … Nothing was obviously missing from the 2D experience that made me feel like the 3D was a must-have.
And of course, that’s true of all 3D movies. Movies, after all, rely on the aftermarket of satellite, broadcast and cable licenses, of home DVD releases and releases to airline entertainment systems and hotel room video-on-demand services – none of which are in 3D. If the movie couldn’t be properly enjoyed in boring old 2D, the economics of filmmaking would collapse … he economics just don’t support it: a truly 3D movie would be one where the 3D was so integral to the storytelling and the visuals and the experience that seeing it in 2D would be like seeing a giant-robots-throwing-buildings-at-each-other blockbuster as a flipbook while a hyperactive eight-year-old supplied the sound effects by shouting “BANG!” and “CRASH!” in your ear. Such a film would be expensive to produce and market and could never hope to recoup.
I haven’t seen a 3D film yet (I have been in a movie theatre precisely three times in the last four years – the result of two small children and limited babysitting options), so I have nothing to say about the aesthetic merits or demerits thereof. But if there is a significant constituency who (unlike Cory) prefer 3D movies, then there is probably a decent economic case for these movies, especially when (as with Up!), the 3D effects require only relatively cheap re-rendering. This case would rely on substitution effects. The problem with the movie home viewing market is that there is a substitute that is relatively good, and cheap-to-free – pirated movies via your BitTorrent service of choice. While I’m not going to get into the econometrics of whether or not the decline in DVD sales is a product of substitution or something else (the causal relationships are murky), I do imagine that if I were a movie entrepreneur, I would be thinking very, very seriously about ways to differentiate my product and move into a more secure market where individuals were less likely to be able to upload free competitors to my product and hence cut my margin to ribbons. Adding 3D effects (if there is a real demand for them) is one such means of differentiation.
And while we’re speaking of pirated intellectual content – I should make it clear that my argument here is a slightly updated version of one that Tyler Cowen made a few years ago in his book Good and Plenty. To quote from my contemporaneous review of same:
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is one that goes on a tangent from Cowen’s main argument – his discussion of how changes in the ability of producers to enforce copyright are likely to affect cultural production. Here, he argues that the likely consequences will differ dramatically from art form to art form. Simplifying a little, he adapts Walter Benjamin to argue that there is likely to be a big difference between art forms that rely heavily on their “aura,” and art forms that can be transformed into information without losing much of their cultural content. The former are likely to continue to do well – they aren’t fundamentally challenged by the Internet. In contrast, forms of art which can be translated into information without losing much of their content are likely to see substantial changes, thanks to competition from file sharing services. Over time, we may see “the symbolic and informational” functions of art [becoming] increasingly separate,” as the Internet offers pure information, and other outlets invest more heavily in providing an “aura” and accompanying benefits of status that will make consumers more willing to pay for art (because it is being produced in a prestigious concert hall, exhibited in a museum etc). Pop music is likely to emphasize live concert performance more, because this has value that can’t be reproduced easily through electronic means (you have to ‘be there’ to properly enjoy it). Cinema is likely to emphasize the benefits of the movie theater experience, rather than enhancements to DVDs that can easily be ripped off by pirates. It’s likely to remain economically healthy even if profits are hit by illegal filesharing (most people didn’t bother to copy video cassettes because it was cheap to rent them).
In this contemporary argument, ‘flashy 3D special effects’ are doing the work of ‘Benjaminian aura’ – while the two are obviously rather different, their economic effects are quite similar to each other.