The big and somewhat unexpected box office news last weekend was the mammoth debut of Pacific Rim in China. The monsters vs. robots epic pulled in $45.2 million, a record debut for a Warner Bros. film in China, bringing its overseas total to a robust $200 million thus far.As of Sunday, the film had racked up $293 million worldwide, with several high-profile foreign debuts, such as Japan, still to come. Point being, for better or worse, the film may end up being successful enough overseas to merit a sequel. On the flip side of that coin, The Lone Ranger continues to struggle both here and abroad. Not only is it not going to get to $100 million domestic, but it has just now crossed $175 million worldwide after over a month of play. There are a number of reasons why Pacific Rim is doing better than The Lone Ranger (and no, we film critics didn’t kill The Lone Ranger), but at least one reason worth noting is that one film went out as 3D and the other went out as 2D.
Domestic audiences may be choosing 2D in greater and greater numbers, but 3D is still a massive draw in overseas markets around the world, or at least accepted as a new normal for viewing Hollywood exports. Salute Gore Verbinski‘s insistence on going the old-school route all you want (and I do, on an artistic level), but a 3D The Lone Ranger would surely be making more than a 2D one purely by virtue of higher ticket prices, to say nothing of general overseas pull for 3D in the current worldwide box office environment. And Guillermo del Toro may have “lost” the fight with Warner Bros. over 3D conversion, but his film is now reaping the overseas rewards from that decision. Is it now borderline financially irresponsible for mega-budget blockbusters, especially non-sequels, to enter the international market place in just two dimensions?
In today’s marketplace, where a big-budget film’s financial fate is often decided by overseas dollars, it’s almost fiscal self-injury not to make the call. For anywhere from $10 million to $20 million extra, you can add around 15-20% to your opening weekend grosses (think around 40% of tickets sold via 3D and prices around 33% higher per 3D ticket) and around 15% to your total domestic box office, with an un-quantifiable upshot for foreign grosses. For numbers like that, why wouldn’t you convert your purely commercial popcorn genre film to 3D? That’s why it was an obvious call last year when Paramount delayed G.I. Joe: Retaliation so they could convert it to 3D. The result was a $371m worldwide gross (compared to $300 million for the first film) on a lower budget ($130m vs. $175m), at least partially due to the overseas drawing power of 3D.
It’s not an exact science of course. Last year saw two films in 2D (The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall) cross $1 billion worldwide. Universal’s (at the moment) current worldwide box office champ is the 2D Fast & Furious 6 ($771 million) while their biggest flop, R.I.P.D. ($48 million on a $130 million budget) went out as 3D. But if you look at both the majority of the big worldwide live-action hits of summer 2013 (Iron Man 3, World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel), they are pretty much all 3D save for the aforementioned Furious 6. And if you look at the alleged flops of summer, you’ll notice that White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and After Earth all did the “honorable” thing and went into wide release as purely 2D engagements. Correlation does not equal causation, but when every penny counts, why not pay for the conversion and reap the potential overseas windfall?
Unless you’re a comedy (The Heat, Grown Ups 2), or a cheap horror film (The Purge, The Conjuring), you’re basically taking a gigantic financial hit to the chin right out of the gate by forsaking 3D release. At least during summer 2013, if you want to be a blockbuster, you basically have to cope with the perhaps unwanted 3D conversion. To do otherwise is basically to leave money on the table, money which can mean the difference between a hit and a miss in regards to large-budget spectacles. Last summer’s Snow White and the Huntsman in 2D is barely a hit at $396 million worldwide thanks to its $175 million budget. But in 3D with an estimated 15%-20% worldwide bump, the film is now looking at $450m-$475m worldwide for the same general cost. Fox ‘s Rise of the Planet of the Apes would have likely crossed $200 million in America and $500 million worldwide with a 3D theatrical distribution purely by virtue of the 3D ticket price bump.
The foreign pull of 3D is partially why 20th Century Fox let Ridley Scott accept that R-rating for his $130 million Prometheus last year, and the film earned over $400m worldwide despite grossing just $126m stateside. Going 3D means that G.I. Joe: Retaliation gets to $371m and Star Trek Into Darkness gets to $450m despite weaker domestic totals for both compared to their respective predecessors. In 2D, The Wolverine would be, at best, barely over $200m worldwide at the moment, yet now it sits with $255m after around ten days. With 3D, After Earth would surely be looking at around $300m worldwide. In 3D, Battleship may well have crossed $350m worldwide, while a 2D John Carter would have lost even more money. The movie is the movie, but 3D makes big films bigger and helps big flops earn just a little more when every dollar counts. Artistic intent aside, in this current environment, where 3D is still a major deal overseas, a 3D conversion basically amounts to money for nothing.
A 2D Iron Man 3 still would have been a massive smash, even if it may not have crossed $1 billion. Perhaps a 3D Lone Ranger would have merely done Green Lantern numbers ($116 million US, $219 million worldwide), and we’re still not getting a Dredd 2 since the 3D comic book reboot still tanked late last year. And two films arguably in theaters mostly for the alleged pull of 3D (Percy Jackson: The Sea Monsters and Disney’s Planes) will fly or fall based on their overall appeal to moviegoers. The other major release this weekend, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, is bravely going out as 2D only, but the film’s $90 million cost mitigates its need to become an all-out global blockbuster. Ditto the slew of young-adult fantasy would-be franchise starters such as Beautiful Creatures, The Host, City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments, and Divergent. 3D would surely help in the very least for the higher ticket prices, but the films are cheap enough to forgo the conversion (all cost well under $100 million).
But for mega-budget films like World War Z and Pacific Rim, especially when you’re dealing with non-sequels, the overseas draw that is 3D may make the difference between a minor financial miss and a possible franchise. Would World War Z be racing towards $500 million worldwide had the Brad Pitt vehicle been released purely as 2D? Precedent says possibly not. For just an extra $10-$20 million, why not convert the film and go for those inflated grosses? If Pacific Rim does make its way to $400 million worldwide, it will be in part due to the financial overseas drawing power of that 3D conversion that Guillermo del Toro only begrudgingly accepted. It was a no-brainer for the $180 million Legendary Pictures production. Heck, arguably a big-scale monster movie is just the sort of thing that defined 3D back in the 1950′s, but either way the film is doing much better than expected overseas, which is at least partially due to that 3D conversion.
So where does this leave those of who dislike 3D? Well, fortunately for domestic audiences, studios have wised up over the last two years and offered plenty of 2D viewing options for most of their major 3D would-be tent poles. Generally speaking, the only people “forced” to see 3D films in 3D are people like me, film critics who attend the press screenings which are usually in the 3D format. But in terms of whether or not to release your major would-be franchise entry in 3D, we may have reached a point where, especially for non-sequels, going out as 2D only is financial suicide. It’s not impossible. The Twilight Saga did it five times in a row, and the first Hunger Games made $691 million worldwide in glorious 2D. But once you reach a certain budgetary figure, say $130 million, unless you’re a sequel or you have a guaranteed built-in audience, 3D has become perhaps a necessary supplement.
It is sad to say for those who prefer old-school glorious 2D (especially 2D IMAX), but for as long as overseas audiences are still flocking to 3D Hollywood productions, it may well be financially irresponsible for would-be tent poles to go 2D.