Quick, name the year:

A new, improved 3-D technology is being touted as the future of movies. Theaters around the country begin converting their venues and adding expensive new equipment. The 3-D format, previously considered a gimmick, begins attracting some of Hollywood's most respected filmmakers and actors. Soon the industry is cranking out 3-D movies: horror flicks, war films, thrillers, even musicals.

The answer: It was 1953, with the rise of the dual-projector Polaroid system. The fad didn't last, but today, nearly 60 years later, history is repeating itself. This time, instead of the old-fashioned musical "Kiss Me Kate," it's the trendy teen dance-flick "Step Up 3D." Instead of the Vincent Price chiller "House of Wax," it's the gore-fest

"Piranha 3D" (due in theaters Aug. 20). That's not all: An estimated 50 or more 3-D films are in the pipeline for the next two years, including the Taylor Lautner superhero vehicle "Stretch Armstrong," the next two "Harry Potter" installments and - get ready - "Saw 3D."

Yes, 3-D may be the biggest movie development since self-serve butter flavoring, but already the format is losing some of its rosy glow. Well-known filmmakers like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau have publicly expressed concerns about a 3-D glut. Box-office analysts are seeing weakness in 3-D ticket sales. Most important, savvy moviegoers are beginning to demand more bang for their three-dimensional buck.

"Right now there's a real 3-D backlash," says Paul Dergarabed- ian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com. "I don't think it's the savior of the industry as everyone thought."



Copying 'Avatar'


Ever since December, when James Cameron's eye-popping "Avatar" proved that 3-D could do more than induce a migraine, Hollywood has been encouraging moviegoers to don those funny black shades. "Avatar" became the top-grossing movie of all time, partly because about 80 percent of its $749 million in ticket sales came from more expensive 3-D screenings. Soon after, Tim Burton's 3-D "Alice in Wonderland" grossed $334 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The craze is now officially under way. The number of 3-D screens in the U.S. has soared to 5,206, up 54 percent from last year's total of 3,367 according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. By year's end, the number of 3-D screens could rise to 7,000 (about one-sixth of the country's 40,200 screens).

What's driving the trend? In a word, money. Official figures are hard to come by, but the average surcharge for a 3-D screening seems to be inching toward $4 over a regular 2-D show. Those pricier tickets have doubtless boosted this year's box-office receipts, which have reached a total of $6.9 billion through Aug. 8, a 4 percent increase over the same period last year, according to BoxOffice.com.

Still, the novelty may be wearing off. The percentage of moviegoers who paid extra for this year's big 3-D releases has been shrinking, according to Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research in New York. According to his figures, about 70 percent of moviegoers bought 3-D glasses for the March 5 opening weekend of "Alice in Wonderland," but only 60 percent did so for the much-hyped "Toy Story 3" in June. "Clash of the Titans," one of the year's most poorly reviewed 3-D releases, sold only 55 percent of its opening-weekend tickets for 3-D showings.

"Hollywood is really trying to jam 3-D into everything they do," Greenfield wrote in his analysis at BTIGResearch .com. "We continue to believe that an increasing number of bad 3-D movies at inflated ticket prices will cause 3-D fatigue."



When 3-D is tacked on


It's possible that "Clash of the Titans" helped galvanize the current 3-D backlash. The film was converted to 3-D after completion, a computer-aided process that typically can't match the high-quality depth-effects of a movie filmed in 3-D from the start. Critics, and perhaps audiences as well, noticed the difference. Since then, films like "The Last Airbender" and the recent "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" also have been singled out for their imperfect 3-D conversions.

"People are doing it as a last-minute afterthought," says David Stump, a special-effects supervisor and member of the American Society of Cinematographers' technology committee. Because shooting with cumbersome 3-D equipment can add 20 percent to 30 percent to the cost of a production, he says, a postproduction conversion - which still runs about $30,000 to $60,000 per minute of footage - seems relatively cheap. And even those conversions tend to be rushed.

"They don't have the patience or the time or the money resources," Stump says. "So it generally happens, as a result, not very well."

Regardless of quality, audiences may be reacting to 3-D much as they did in the early 1950s, when the format soared in popularity and then, within a couple of years, faded from view. "It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience," critic Roger Ebert wrote in a recent blog post at Newsweek .com. He added: "I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality that generations of executives possessed."





To convert or not convert?


In Hollywood, that's not a religious question but a technical one. Now that 3-D is all the rage, studios have been converting some regular 2-D movies into the new format. There's just one problem: Converted movies often look noticeably inferior to movies that were shot in 3-D from the start.

"3-D photography entails that you shoot with two cameras," says David Stump, a member of the American Society of Cinematographers' Technology Committee. "Conversions take one camera view and splice and dice objects in the scene so that they are physically manipulated to be in multiple planes."

That means digitally cutting and pasting images to move them into the foreground or background. Computers can do some of that automatically, but more detailed images may require tracing by hand. In the 3-D conversion "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," it often seems the computer was in charge: Whiskers will pop out toward you, but so will the carpet visible between each whisker.

"You have to very finely define the area you're bringing up to the foreground," Stump says.

"Clash of the Titans," another conversion, revealed a different glitch: Actors' faces seemed to float forward, away from their heads. According to Stump, that might be a problem with the interaxial - that is, the distance between the two cameras the computer is trying to create. Set the interaxial too wide, and the viewer's perception can be skewed.

Can a conversion ever look convincing? We'll see when James Cameron, who kicked off the 3-D craze with "Avatar," releases his 3-D version of "Titanic" in April 2012.





A whole new dimension for upcoming films


From young-adult fantasy to video- game action to gross-out horror, no genre is safe from the 3-D craze. Here's a sampling of what's coming out this year:

RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (Sept. 17) Milla Jovovich returns in this video-game adaptation franchise.

LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE (Sept. 24) Director Zack Snyder ("300") goes for the young-adult fantasy market.

JACKASS 3D (Oct. 15)Johnny Knoxville and company, in your face.

SAW 3D (Oct. 22)Eew, gross! With Cary Elwes and Tobin Bell.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS - PART 1 (Nov. 19)The first part of the final adventure.

TANGLED (Nov. 24)Disney's animated twist on the Rapunzel fairy-tale, with the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Ron Perlman.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (Dec. 10) The latest in the Narnia series, with Tilda Swinton as the White Witch.

TRON: LEGACY (Dec. 17) Jeff Bridges returns in the long-awaited sequel to Disney's 1982 cult hit.

YOGI BEAR (Dec. 17) Animation plus live action, with Justin Timberlake, Dan Aykroyd and Anna Faris.

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (Dec. 22) A contemporary take on the Jonathan Swift story, starring Jack Black, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt.

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