You could forgive them for thinking that selling 3-D movies and TV would be easy. Manufacturers and retailers banked on 3-D's famous novelty; allegedly "good" films like Avatar; and gleaming new HD infrastructure to carry it all into homes. Instead, most of them lost money in Q1, prompting The Financial Times to declare 3-D content would be doomed to niches like gaming and sports.
Samsung has responded tepidly to the 3-D slump by bundling their TVs with a second pair of 3-D glasses for free. If the problem were solvable by marketing, retail price, or technology, the industry might have corrected its path already. But what's missing isn't so easy to conjure: good film-making.
Quantity Over Quality
Asked about mediocre 3-D TV sales, and Panasonic's CTO Eisuke Tsuyuzaki echoes a common sentiment in the industry: the barrier is content. "What makes good 3-D TV is new 3-D services," he says, "and we need to work with the content industry to do this."
He's talking about breadth. Panasonic has partnered with DirecTV to produce and manage content for a new 24-hour 3-D channel that will feature all genres of stuff, from sports to documentaries. Partners like DirecTV need a lot of "support," says Tsuyuzaki, because producing video in 3-D is difficult. "You need a second crew, a second director, and new hardware," he says.
But that's not the real holdup, according to sources in Hollywood. Whatever 3-D bottlenecks once existed in the film and TV industry, they're all but gone now, says Ted Schilowitz of RED Digital Cinema Company, whose menacing-looking Epic 3-D camera rigs are being used to shoot new blockbusters by directors like Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, and Bryan Singer. "We've basically solved all the issues, and the cost wouldn't even discourage a film with a tiny budget." Schilowitz says one such film, an indie horror flick named Hellbenders, is being shot in 3-D in suburban New York this spring.
Intel, which makes most of the processors inside today's 3-D TVs, says that another obstacle is distribution. "The only thing that's standardized about 3-D is Blu-ray," says Lance Koenders, the director of marketing for Intel's digital home group. "What definitely isn't standardized is how broadcast content and Web content is displayed in 3-D."
So while TV-makers are bickering over technology standards, Koenders says, many are also hedging their bets, loading TVs with cheap 3-D systems that offload most of the cost onto battery-powered glasses with active shutters in the lenses. (This little strategy is also the reason today's home 3-D glasses cost $180 instead of $10, like the 3-D glasses you get in the theater.) "These are the well-calculated risks of breaking a chicken-and-egg problem," he says.
Consumers haven't been impressed with OEMs half-assed 3-D systems, which has put the burden on Hollywood to make 3-D appealing. But Schilowitz says that the move to 3-D isn't like the move to HD. High-definition TV was about improving infrastructure and picture quality. Three-D, by contrast, is an artistic tool.
"When you get right down to brass tacks," says Schilowitz, "it's an education issue." He says most directors of photography in Hollywood haven't internalized 3-D in their creative process, and it will take time before movie-goers begin discovering films that have innovated with it. "We're starting to see some guys who are really talented with 3-D," he says, naming directors of photography like Darius Walsky, responsible for Pirates of the Carribbean 4, and John Schwartzman, who is rumored to be using RED 3-D cameras on the next Spiderman film in 2012. "John [Schwartzman] has taken to it like a duck to water," says Schilowitz.
The Big Break
Unfortunately for companies like Panasonic and Best Buy, Americans only invest in a new TV an average of once every 8.6 years. By comparison, making a new TV show or movie takes a few months or a year. So retailers and manufacturers will continue to get hung out to dry while Hollywood finds its way.
Manufacturers like LG and Vizio are hoping to speed things by produce "passive" 3-D TVs that forgo geeky, expensive battery-powered glasses in favor of more traditional-looking 3-D eye glasses. As more 3-D blockbusters hit Blu-ray and more TVs come bundled with passive 3-D, consumers might get around to trying it.
But the real panacea—and it's not a quick one—may be the proliferation of consumer 3-D cameras. "There is a huge appetite for people to make their own content in 3-D," says Tsuyuzaki, whose company has produced one of the first consumer-grade high-def 3-D video cameras. At $800, Panasonic's 3-D video camera could be cheap enough to get people experimenting.
"Most people that buy those consumer cameras will have no idea how to use 3-D," says Schilowitz, "but then again, some people will. And one of them will become the next Steven Soderbergh." Until 3-D's savior is united with his film-making destiny, a billion-dollar chicken and egg problem rolls on.
[Image: Flickr user Loren Javier]