When deciding whether to buy that 3-D ticket for Disney/Pixar’s Brave, consider this: Do you actually want to see the entire movie?
When Brave hits theaters June 22, if 2011’s trends are any indication, between 40 and 60 percent of tickets sold will be for 3-D showings. Yet at 3-D preview screenings around the country, film media and other guests raised concerns about the darkness of the screen image during many of the sequences that take place at night—and during the movie’s climactic half-hour, that’s a lot of sequences.
This phenomenon of darkened 3-D projection is nothing new. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote extensively about exhibition problems in a blog column last May, gathering both anecdotal evidence and hard statistics that images too dark to be seen easily were becoming commonplace in 3-D screenings. RealD 3-D’s own technical specifications indicate that, compared to a standard 2-D projection, “the viewer sees about 35% of the light that would be seen in a 2-D system projecting on a matte-white screen.” A 3-D screening will inevitably be darker. And when the movie itself is dark, that’s a recipe for frustration.
When I raised concerns about the screening I attended at the Megaplex Jordan Commons, the theater’s Digital Cinema Specialist, Adam Tillman, responded that he was able to verify that the projection for the theater in question was “within the studio standards” as verified by the digital-projection company Ballantyne Strong. The theater was showing Brave the way Disney/Pixar expected Brave to be shown—which suggests that even if you’re attending a theater doing everything it’s supposed to be doing, you’re likely to encounter a similar lighting level. While some viewers at these advanced screenings indicated that they saw nothing unusually dim about the 3-D Brave, for many others, “normal” just isn’t good enough. (At deadline, attempts to contact Disney/Pixar for comment through a regional publicist have been unsuccessful).
The extra dollars from 3-D screenings have been a huge part of box-office receipts in recent years; in 2010, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, the North American Theater Owners trade association determined that 21 percent of total North American gross came from 3-D screenings. Surcharges for 3-D range nationally from $2 - $3, with Utah’s theaters mostly charging $2. For a film like Brave, box-office projections based on Pixar’s history suggest that approximately $25 - $30 million of the total North American gross could come simply from that 3-D surcharge. With that kind of money at stake, it would be nice to think that a distributor cares about whether having customers put on those glasses—then not actually providing an exhibition experience that allows them to enjoy the whole film—amounts to robbing them blind.