“Gravity’s $ucce$$ will lead to a new round of 3D films NOT conceived for 3D…” These words, from Pixar stalwart Brad Bird via Twitter last fall, are unshakably true; if we have learned anything from Hollywood over the years, it’s that they will ride a passing fad into the ground, well past its expiration date. The industry’s leaders presume that if one unique aspect represented in one popular film works, that same aspect will work in every upcoming film. Though there are various add-ons Hollywood loves to graft upon its products, such as an IMAX presentation for something that wasn’t shot in the IMAX format, the most prevalent remains 3D. There are a handful of major films, from Gravity to Avatar to Hugo, that have been aided enormously by being presented in this immersive format; however, for each Gravity, there are 10 Need for Speeds right behind, films that were post-converted to the 3D format not because they require it, but because the studios want to make a quick buck.
Pixar has not been immune to the scourge of 3D post-conversion (or re-rendering), of course. Each of their films since Up in 2009—interestingly, a few months before Avatar opened and performed massively at the box office—has been presented in both 2D and 3D formats. A new animated film presented in 3D is, at least, expected if not demanded. It would, frankly, be more shocking if, say, Inside Out wasn’t being post-converted into 3D. (As you’ll see later in this article, there’s no cause for shock: it will be post-converted.) A sub-trend of the 3D fad, which has ebbed and flowed over the last 5 years, is re-releasing older films that were originally presented in 2D in post-converted 3D. Movies like Titanic and Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace are the most notable live-action examples, but Disney has been at the forefront of this trend even more than James Cameron or George Lucas (both of whom, coincidentally or not, have worked with Disney in the past). About 2 ½ years ago, Disney re-released The Lion King into theaters in 3D, and were likely pleasantly surprised that it grossed nearly $100 million at the box office in its limited engagement.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Disney followed the studio playbook just as Brad Bird’s tweet predicted for the entirety of the film industry. They planned to re-release a mix of their own animated classics and Pixar favorites in 3D into theaters throughout 2012 and 2013, but the plan fell flat almost instantly. Beauty and the Beast was post-converted and released into theaters in 3D in January 2012, grossing roughly half of what The Lion King made a few months earlier. Finding Nemo made a few million dollars less than that; Beauty and the Beast grossed just over $47 million, while Finding Nemo made $41 million. (It’s worth noting, of course, that Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were re-released in 3D in a double-feature set-up in October 2009, in part to hype the upcoming Toy Story 3, and grossed just $30 million.) The unintended final release of this 3D strategy was Monsters, Inc., which returned to theaters to help begin the Monsters University campaign; after being dropped unceremoniously into the Christmas movie season of 2012, it made $34 million.
On the one hand, none of the films that were re-released subsequent to The Lion King 3D performed nearly as well; this explains the misbegotten choice on Disney’s part to remove its planned 3D release of The Little Mermaid in the fall of 2013, coinciding with its release on Blu-ray for the first time. Yet, Disney has apparently not learned its lesson, based on this report from Screen Daily over the weekend. The rumors that have floated around for the last couple of years may well be true: The Incredibles and Ratatouille are both being prepped for 3D re-releases, according to Josh Hollander, Pixar’s director of 3D production. While attending the 3D Creative Summit in London, Hollander said that both of Brad Bird’s Pixar films are being “worked on” in 3D, though he admits he doesn’t know (or he’s just not sharing) the release strategy for either film. Logic would dictate, of course, that we’ll get that Incredibles re-release later this year, to celebrate the film’s 10th anniversary. But logic might dictate that a 3D re-release of either of these films isn’t the smartest gambit.
To be clear (if it’s even necessary), this is not meant as a commentary on the quality of either film. Both The Incredibles and Ratatouille are among the very best films Pixar’s made, and two of the best animated features of the 21st century. In fact, consider the frustration inherent in responding to this story as being tied to that opinion: these films are excellent pieces of art, and somehow, amazingly, they are appreciated by audiences worldwide in spite of not being post-converted into 3D. The dangerous assumption that Disney makes here is that audiences will only respond to a re-release if it’s been retrofitted with unnecessary bells and whistles. What’s more, it may be that Disney didn’t review why their previous 3D re-releases didn’t perform as highly as they’d wished. What matters most in these cases is timing; audiences didn’t avoid the Monsters, Inc. 3D re-release because they didn’t enjoy that 2001 film or wouldn’t want to rewatch it, but because the timing of the release was misguided. That re-release was originally intended to open in January of 2013, mirroring the way that Beauty and the Beast was re-released into theaters that same month a year before. But Disney got too greedy, moving the Monsters, Inc. release to December 19, 2012, merely 5 days after The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rode into theaters, and only a few days before other Christmastime movies opened. Also, one more fact to consider: by the time this 3D re-release was unveiled in theaters, a Monsters, Inc. 3D Blu-ray had been in stores for nearly a year. (The way that the Finding Nemo re-release performed lower than expected is a bit stranger, as it wasn’t arriving on Blu-ray for the first time until the 2012 Christmas season.) If the average family is going to the movies during the holidays, are they going to see a brand new movie, in 3D or otherwise, or an older film they might have seen multiple times and may well own?
The same question could be asked of The Incredibles or Ratatouille. (Also, it’s fascinating to wonder—because as of this writing, he’s said nothing about the story—what Brad Bird thinks of this apparent 3D conversion. He’s already gone on the record and said that his upcoming live-action film Tomorrowland, also from Disney, hasn’t been seriously considered for a 3D post-conversion, in spite of rumors.) Both of these films have been available on Blu-ray and DVD for years, and unlike Disney’s animated films, there’s no Pixar vault for them to be shelved for an extended period of time. Although neither film has been converted into 3D for a Blu-ray (at least, not yet), the question remains: if you bring your family to the multiplex, do you want to see a new movie or an old movie you could watch in the comfort of your own home? Disney is, of course, no stranger to re-releasing its animated films, from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s all the way to 1997. (The Little Mermaid was re-released in mid-November of that year.) Disney has re-released a shocking amount of its films into theaters once, if not more. For example: the now-controversial, barely-seen Song of the South was brought back into theaters in 1986, in part to see if enough controversy erupted that a planned theme-park attraction wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Clearly, since Splash Mountain is now one of the most consistently popular attractions in any theme park, there wasn’t a notable brouhaha.
However, times have changed. When Disney re-released movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Fantasia into theaters in the mid-1980s, VHS and Laserdiscs weren’t nearly as prevalent as DVDs and Blu-rays. Home entertainment systems and HDTVs weren’t a blip in reality; now, they’re almost the norm. Not everyone, of course, owns a Blu-ray player or even a DVD player, but such devices are more common than owning, say, a Laserdisc player was in the mid-1980s. There is (or may be, depending on how much of this is based on studio fears) less of an incentive to go to the movie theater these days. Today, for example, Frozen has been released on Blu-ray and DVD around the country, but if you were impatient and had the wherewithal, as well as the necessary applications and players, you could’ve bought the film any time over the last 2 weeks in digital HD. (Take this writer’s advice: don’t buy the Blu-ray. Just buy the movie on Amazon or iTunes, if you can.) That film, certainly, is a massive financial success, probably more so than Disney’s accountants would’ve imagined. But its success is still rare; Frozen is the kind of movie people might want to watch repeatedly at home, instead of driving to the theater and paying money for tickets and food from the concession stand.
The Incredibles and Ratatouille are two of Pixar’s crown jewels. Though he’d done excellent work before, these are the films that helped vault Brad Bird into live-action filmmaking, proving his worth in both mediums of cinema deftly and confidently. While all 3D post-conversions are not equal—it’s worth remembering that Gravity was post-converted, but in a more painstaking manner than is traditional—a large majority of them are unnecessary and serve only to part audience members with more of their money. It’s clearly too early to tell whether these post-conversions will be worth watching, but it would be a true shock for them to be as financially successful as Disney hopes. (To be clear, these post-conversions don’t cost a ton of money relative to their original production. Still, if Disney pulled The Little Mermaid post-conversion from release, $30 million might not cut it for their bottom line.)
Seeing Disney go back to one aspect of its roots should be heartening: there’s nothing wrong with re-releasing older films into theaters. In fact, it’s a great old tradition that should be brought back, because sometimes, revisiting a classic in the largest format possible is more satisfying than being disappointed by something new. But the world of cinema has changed irrevocably since the days when audiences lined up to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in theaters decades after its original release. Audiences worldwide may love the adventures of Remy the rat or Bob Parr and his superhuman family, but shoving those adventures into post-converted 3D may be the impetus for audiences to stay at home, instead of shelling out 10 bucks a ticket to put on an extra pair of glasses for something so familiar.