The Rise of 3D

The Polar Express - 2004's 3D Revival

On October 6, 1927, the Jazz Singer debuted – and for the first time in history, film was given a voice. Less than two years later, in July of 1929, On With The Show added color. After these landmark films, cinema had irrevocably changed, and the adaptation of the new technologies was relatively swift. But on April 9, 1953, Man in the Dark became the first major 3D release, and the reaction was somewhat less impressive. If 3D is the way cinema ends, as many critics contest, Man in the Dark came with a whimper and not a bang: critics found no consensus, and until half a century later, our embrace of 3D films had been tentative at best.

Last August, Slate ran a piece entitled “Is 3-D Dead in the Water?” Two days ago, Roger Ebert declared that “3D doesn’t work and never will. Case Closed.” And since the Polar Express delivered us into an era of 3D revival in 2004, critics have been popularly proclaiming 3D as a dead medium walking. But what do the numbers show? Well, it appears the demise of 3D has been somewhat exaggerated.

Let’s start with the recent state of 3D: Until 2008, the US revenue from films that were offered in 3D never accounted for more than 3% of all films. In 2009, they represented 16.3%, and in 2010, 31.4%. Keep in mind, those numbers include 2D versions of 3D films, such as the 2D screen revenue from Avatar. But even if that’s factored out, in 2010 the revenue from 3D-only was still 20.2%. To understand this trend visually, I’ve made two charts that show the rise in revenue from 3D-only screenings. Here’s a monthly breakdown from 2000-2010:

For a closer look, I’ve also created a weekly chart representing the last 3 years. It’s much easier to understand the granularity in this version, as you can track how individual 3D films are introduced, and how their revenue slowly decays:

From that perspective, 3D isn’t dead – in fact, it appears to be thriving. But this is only a snapshot of the moving industry, and only half the story.

To dive deeper, the previously mentioned Slate article did some insightful research on the per-theater revenue of 3D compared to 2D. Their results were that after 2004, 3D revenues per theater have been approaching 2D revenues, and that they’re now about equalized. Essentially, Slate has shown that 3D theaters previously were routinely filled with a larger audience, but that now audiences demand a 3D theater no more than 2D. This is a sign that the 3D market has matured, and the use of 3D theaters has been saturated. According to this analysis, any future rise in 3D as a share of all films can’t come simply from the novelty of 3D, but from a better use of 3D in films, or audiences becoming more accustomed to unwieldy polarizing glasses. And so, although the Slate article does make a convincing case for a deceleration of 3D film, I don’t believe it indicates that 3D film is likely to decline.

To further this analysis, I wanted to shed some light on the broader picture, and answer the larger question: how profitable are 3D films? Below are two charts: the first comparing the production costs to worldwide gross (in all films that have published production budget data from 2000-2010), the second showing returns to production budget over time.

First of all, the wayward dot in the top right is, of course, Avatar. Otherwise, as you can see, 3D films generally make much more money than 2D ($381M compared to $89.5M); but also cost much more ($105M compared to $35.6M). For each dollar spent on a 3D film, there’s an average return of $3.69; and for each dollar on a 2D film, there’s an average return of $2.51 in worldwide box office revenue.

However, given the high unpredictability of box office returns, this difference is statistically insignificant (there’s over a 20% likelihood that this differential return is the result of random chance). In addition, there is a bias in which films publicly report their production budgets, and this chart doesn’t speak to the fact that many films are selected for 3D treatment after having already been predicted for higher success. However, this information does strongly indicate that 3D films are not faring significantly worse than 2D, and any reasonable guess for the future, has to guess that 3D will be a growing factor in cinema.

Lastly, I wanted to understand the development of 3D profits over time. In the chart below I’ve studied the return on production budgets – the amount earned worldwide divided by the amount spent in production. (Note the logarithmic scale, to fit in huge outliers such as Paranormal Activity and Super Size Me):

This final chart shows that 3D films are continuing to offer as much profit as ever; and their returns to production budget have actually remained remarkably constant (averaging less than a 0.1 cent change per year). In addition, you can see that all the 3D films have been much more predictable than 2D films. Where 2D films vary all over the map, 3D films (largely due to their big budgets) always give about the same return on investment, making them less risky, and even more desirable.

In the end, The Polar Express wasn’t the latest Jazz Singer. 3D isn’t the natural progression from 2D that only took time and technology to overcome. I believe it’s best considered a nearly different medium altogether, requiring a whole new set of tools to create well, and a new set of rules to evaluate and appreciate. In fact, I think the most apt comparison is that 3D, as it is now, is like the Silver Age of Disney: animation after The Lion King. We’ve seen the wonders of the new format (as well as some horrors), and the novelty is just now wearing off. But at the same time, even if each film is no longer quite as special, and there are as many misses as hits, the format is still in its newfound infancy – with a long way to mature.

Notes: The revenue from 3D was calculated by multiplying a film’s total revenue by that film’s share of revenue from 3D. However, the 3D share data are spotty – so when the data were unavailable, I assumed an average share for each film in 2010 so that the resulting weighted average of all films matched the reported 2010 average of 62.22%. In years previous to 2010, I assumed 62.22% where data were missing.

Statistical significance of 3D vs. 2D ROI based on a t-test of ROIs by dimension; the p-value is 0.22. ROI calculations were averages of ROI weighted by world gross, which is equivalent to dividing the sum of world gross by the sum of production budgets, for each dimension.

Revenues and production budgets from List of 3D films from Other sources: 1234567,8910.

The Genre Codex

Dark City

What defines a genre? If an Action film is large enough, when does it become an Epic? Is No Country for Old Men a Mystery or a modern Western? Is there any value at all to try to classify Being John Malkovich?

Thanks to The Internet Movie Script Database, I can start to answer a piece of that question: what words constitute the text of each genre. The database contains 897 scripts over 13 categories, not enough for a comprehensive understanding of film scripts, but more than enough to look at some basic insights. So the first thing I wanted to see was a simple count of word frequencies by genre: how many times the word “love” appeared in Romance compared to how many times the word “money” appeared in Crime. The results are below:

Word Frequency

Most of these results are unsurprising: “Woman” is used the most in Romance, “Man” in War. “Hope” and “Fear” are both the most prevalent in War. And, as mentioned, Crime seems to be the most about “Money,” Romance about “Love.” But some results were less obvious: If you look at the scale of the top left chart, it seems that there’s still a gender gap in Hollywood pronouns.

The Codex

After simple word counts, I wanted to look at something I found more interesting: the “characteristic” words of each genre. I wanted to find small groups of words that, if you read in any script, would immediately tell you what genre you’re in. For example, if you heard the line “Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions…” you know without a doubt, that you’re watching a War Epic, even if you’ve never seen Gladiator. To find this kind of list, you don’t just use the most frequently used words, but the most frequently used words that are not used in other genres. Below are the results and methodology.

Genre Wheels

Finally, I wanted to use both of the above tricks and reverse them. That is, I’ve taken all the words in the Codex, and counted their use in each genre. With this information, I’ve constructed a simple model that can take a script and predict that script’s genre. To represent the results, I’ve created what I’m calling “Genre Wheels,” which are charts that indicate exactly how much each script is an Action film, or a Romance, or a War, etc. For example:

The chart shows that based on the script of Sleepless in Seattle, it’s mostly a Romance and a Drama, but also a bit of a Comedy – in this case, the Codex has predicted genre exceptionally well. Here are a few more examples:

However, genre is a complex construction, built from far more than just the words of a film, and 897 scripts aren’t enough to even completely inform each genre’s word choice – so some results are less than perfect:

Ultimately, these results aren’t accurate enough to take as more than entertaining glimpses into what a script can tell you about a genre. Below are 150 randomly selected maps, and you can see them all on this page.

As mentioned, the scripts and the genre categorization area all from It’s not nearly a complete list of every script written, and each script ranges from first draft to final cut. Finally, genre categorization is always a judgment call, and I left the categories as they were presented.

The Sequel Map – Which Sequels Were Better or Worse Than the Original?

Post image for The Sequel Map – Which Sequels Were Better or Worse Than the Original?

After Shakespeare penned Henry VI, Part 3, do you think anyone complained that Renaissance England had run out of original ideas? I’m not sure, but I can guarantee that anyone who’s seen Weekend at Bernie’s II wishes that most sequels hadn’t been made.

There are exceptions – Godfather II hit harder than the original. The Dark Knight took the start of Batman Begins and made it into either the most thoughtful action movie of all time, or the fasted-paced thoughtful movie of all time (at least until Inception) – but, sadly, far more films fit the rule – and more sequels fail to surpass their original work.

As evidence, all sequels with Rotten Tomatoes scores have been categorized below, with the originals’ scores on the X-axis, and the sequels’ scores on the Y. Films at the center line are sequels with the exact rating as the original; films above are sequels that have surpassed the original; films below, ones that fared worse.

Notes: Categorization of sequels is sometimes more art than science, so I’ve had to follow a few rules: I’ve only included the second film in any series, never third or following films. I haven’t included remakes or “reboots,” and I’m only presenting films which opened (at some time) in the US and have Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

And finally, it’s worth noting that the only two film/sequel combos to both score 100%, are the first two Toy Storys and the French films Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources.

Rotten Tomatoes ratings from US Gross from