3D films lose lustre as home-grown hits win cinema box-office battle

It was the format whose revival in James Cameron’s $237-million budget Avatar brought crowds flocking back to the cinemas, but 3D film is already losing its appeal, pushed out of the picture by low-cost, British-made blockbusters like The King’s Speech.

Despite a record 47 films released in 3D last year, including the final Harry Potter and the latest in the Transformers franchise, box-office receipts for the format fell £7-million to £230-million, reducing its share of total ticket sales from 24% to 20%.

The Lion King‘s re-release in 3D failed to impress, as did Kung Fu Panda 2, with half its audiences opting to see it in two dimensions. As a result, the average takings per 3D film slumped from £8.5-million in 2010, when there were just 28 in the genre, to £4.9-million, according to a report by research firm Enders Analysis.

Novelty wearing off
“A few years ago people went to 3D films just to see what it was like,” said the report’s author, Alice Enders. “That period of experimentation is over. The reality has set in and the momentum has gone. The recession is a factor and families are pushing back against 3D.”

With 3D tickets costing on average 30% more than other films, and with the added cost of glasses, which small children and those who wear contact lenses and spectacles often find uncomfortable, the format is losing its lustre. The biggest-grossing film of 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, was released in both formats but took just 48% of its box-office income from 3D screenings, suggesting that the JK Rowling generation, now starting university or battling for jobs, are feeling the pinch.

Home-grown hits enjoyed a record year, taking the second and third slots at the UK box office, in a triumph of storytelling over digital technology. Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning turn as King George VI helped The King’s Speech into second place with £46-million, while adolescent comedy TV series turned feature film The Inbetweeners Movie netted £45-million. The King’s Speech was made on an estimated budget of £9.5-million, The Inbetweeners Movie on only £3.5-million..

Their performance meant British films, both Independent and US-backed, took 36% of box office receipts, their biggest share in 10 years. Of those, 14% were independent films, the highest share achieved by features without foreign investment.

The release of Avatar in 2009 — with a budget of $237-million — ushered in a 3D craze which boosted UK admissions from 164-million to 174-million, their highest for seven years, and with cinemas able to charge a premium for the new format, takings rose even more dramatically, climbing from £854-million in 2008 to £1.04-billion in 2011.

Fighting for attention
It was a trend that seemed to defy the odds after audiences had become increasingly distracted by the wide array of video available at home from a growing number of digital channels, American TV series box sets, the Lovefilm home rental service and legal or pirated films online.

The UK is the second-largest market for theatrical exhibition in Europe, behind France and ahead of Germany. Adding popcorn sales and screen advertising, Enders estimates our cinema industry was worth about £1.4-billion in 2011.

But the 3D fad looks to be running out of steam, just as it did in the 1950s. This year, the number of 3D films released in the UK will fall to 33, some 14 fewer than in 2011. The outlook for cinema in 2012 is gloomy, with the Olympics expected to distract audiences.

The year has started strongly for domestic cinema with Daniel Radcliffe’s period horror The Woman in Black, made by King’s Speech studio Momentum, dominating the league tables with takings of £14-million. But British films are unlikely to fill the vacuum left now that the Harry Potter franchise has come to an end, and both the Twilight and Pirates of the Caribbean sagas appear to be losing their pull.

“Fuel costs have risen, people are more careful about out-of-home travel; all these are long-term trends that are draining people away from the cinemas,” said Enders. —

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