Alfonso Cuarón's space thriller Gravity shot off to a staggering $55.6 million opening this weekend with an added dimension to its success: unfettered excitement about 3-D.
"Gravity is a milestone for 3-D," says Jim Chabin, president of the International 3-D Society, an industry group that promotes the film technology. "Something very special is happening here. They used the 3-D so boldly in this film, and the audience is going along for the ride."
Over the weekend, millions paid the extra $3 to $4 ticket surcharge without hesitation. By the end, Warner Bros. executives said the 3-D movie sales accounted for a stellar 80% of the box-office haul.
That doesn't surprise Cuarón, who says that "3-D is fundamental for the experience of Gravity. The movie's immersive quality can only be fully experienced in 3-D, from the vastness of space to the intimate isolation of the characters, the intense power of debris collisions to the serenity of the ever-present Earth. With 3-D, audiences float in space."
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Chabin says 3-D excitement is at its highest level since 2009, when James Cameron's Avatar put the technology at the forefront of moviemaking.
"Gravity has just moved the bar again," he says.
Avatar's success ushered in a flood of 3-D titles, along with a debate about whether the extra charge to consumers is worth it. Ang Lee's Life of Pi made a strong case for the format last year en route to winning four Oscars, including one for best visual effects. But this year, 3-D ticket sales slumped, even for box-office hits such as Despicable Me 2, which saw just 27% of its opening weekend gross come from 3-D screens.
"The moviegoing public has grown a little cynical of 3-D because with many movies, it seems like an afterthought, like it's been slapped on. People felt burned by that," says Dave Karger, chief correspondent for the movie site Fandango.com. "But Gravity has provided a real shot in the arm for the industry. I cannot tell you how many people on social media are saying, 'You have to see it in 3-D.' And that's more powerful than any critic."
Eric Wold, a financial analyst specializing in media/entertainment for the firm B. Riley & Co., sent out a glowing report about Gravity to investors Monday, calling the movie "a turning point" for the technology.
"Almost every genre of movie was hitting new 3-D lows this summer - it was across the board. Consumers got more choosy about what they were going to pay for," Wold says. "Gravity is just one movie, but consumers are showing if there's a good movie in 3-D, marketed well, they will come.''
Cuarón, who started working on Gravity after 2006's Children of Men, had never shot in the format. But from the very beginning, he knew the space adventure would be the perfect setting for his initial trek.
"The first script he sent me was called Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3-D," says producer David Heyman. "Alfonso conceived it as a 3-D film."
The four-year Gravity shoot required the invention of technologies to make stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney appear to float in zero gravity. Due to the huge amount of computer graphics needed in every scene, it wasn't possible to shoot them in 3-D, so the effects were built up in postproduction.
But each shot was analyzed for maximum impact by Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, 3-D supervisor Chris Park and visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber. Further, Webber says the laborious shooting process added to the eventual 3-D effectiveness.
"Because of the way it was being shot, everything needed to be previewed and planned in great detail," he says. "And that meant that we could plan the 3-D from early on and be clear about what we were going to do on every shot."
Outer space is also a natural setting for the medium, and Gravity takes advantage of that by showing floating water droplets and lethal satellite debris flying at the astronauts. Webber believes some of the most effective scenes are Cuarón's choreographed long shots, such as the one depicting Bullock as she floats through the International Space Station.
"The long shots suck you into believing you are there,'' Webber says. "And the 3-D just gives it that extra dimension."