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John Scalzi – Harry Potter and the Amazing Disappearing 3-D

You might not have noticed it, but an important thing in movies happened last week: Warner Brothers, the studio that releases the Harry Potter films, announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which was slated to be converted into 3-D, would instead be released, unmolested, in regular old 2-D format. The studio’s official explanation is this:

Despite everyone’s best efforts, we were unable to convert the film in its entirety and meet the highest standards of quality. We do not want to disappoint fans who have long-anticipated the conclusion of this extraordinary journey.

Leaving aside the corporate spin, this choice doesn’t appear to make much economic sense. If the conversion process was in full swing, Warner Brothers sank several million dollars into 3-D-ing the movie. It also means that the studio has to forgo the presumed boost at the box office that 3-D brings. And it means that in not securing those 3-D theaters for Potter Warner Brothers frees them up for competing films, most likely DreamWorks’ Megamind and Disney’s Tangled and TRON: Legacy. Why would Warner Brothers choose to lose money it’s already spent and leave money on the table for its competitors?
Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?

1. This
Harry Potter film wasn’t shot in 3-D, so the 3-D process is generated by
computers after the fact. At this point in time the public has seen
enough hastily done 3-D conversions to know that they don’t like them: see Warner’s own previously noted Clash of the Titans, which despite its commercial success started the grumbling about late-breaking 3-D conversions. See also Paramount’s Last Airbender, roundly criticized for crappy 3-D.

2. If
this Harry Potter film is like the ones preceding it — and judging
from the trailer there’s no reason to believe it won’t be — then it’s
going to be mostly dark and moody. Which means it’s a bad candidate for
the 3-D process, which dims the screen for the viewer and turns dark
action into a murky mess. The moviemakers hastily converting their
films into 3-D didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that when James
Cameron made Avatar he made it bright — even the night scenes are lit up fluorescently (something that TRON: Legacy,
incidentally, should have no problem with). Filmgoers have picked up
on the “dark = crappy 3-D” bit, especially when added to computer

3. Because of Clash, Airbender, and other underwhelming 3-D events (Piranha in 3-D, anyone? How about Step Up 3D?), the bloom is definitely off the three-dimensional rose. When I went to go see the 3-D version of Despicable Me — which was a fine, bright 3-D-ready film — what I mostly heard in the
theater was complaining that the film was only showing in 3-D: a lot of folks in the audience would have happily forgone the
3-D for a cheaper ticket and less of a chance for a headache afterward.
At the moment, I can think of only one film that people are
genuinely excited about for a 3-D experience — the aforementioned TRON: Legacy — and everything else is take it or leave it as far as 3-D goes.

Harry Potter fans are very protective of their boy, and if Warner Brothers
screws up the final films in the series they may burn down the entire
city of Burbank in retaliation. This is not nearly the exaggeration you
may think it is.

Now add this all up and ask yourself this: is Warner Brothers actually going to hurt itself
by not putting out the latest Potter in 3-D? I don’t think it is. The
sort of person who is going to go to a Harry Potter film is also the
sort of person who knows enough about the 3-D process at this point to
actively avoid what is likely to be a crappy iteration.
It’s likely that core Potter fans were planning on catching the 2-D version
anyway, with 3-D a grudging alternative if no other option were
available. What I’m saying is that it’s entirely possible that Harry
Potter might have a smaller overall gross with 3-D than without it.

Now bear in mind we’re talking about the difference between a huge pot of
money and a slightly smaller huge pot of money: the least successful
Potter film made $250 million domestically. Be that as it may, movie
companies like making money, and somewhere in Burbank some accountant
undoubtedly crunched the numbers.

What will be interesting will
be what happens from here. The final Potter movie next year is still
scheduled for 3-D conversion. But if the current Potter film does
perfectly fine — and it will — I suspect that the final Potter might
end up with something like selected scenes in Imax 3-D or be released in relatively few
3-D theaters for actual fans of the form.

Personally, I’d be okay with the scenario. More 2-D for me.

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