BYO3DG—Bring Your Own 3D Glasses

When you go to your local cineplex to catch a 3D movie, you are provided with glasses that isolate the left and right images for the corresponding eyes. I always assumed that the theater bought these glasses, resulting in higher ticket prices and an admonition to toss them into a bin on the way out so they can be reused. But Sony Pictures' announcement two weeks ago that, in May 2012, it will stop providing theaters with RealD glasses—which are used in the majority of commercial 3D presentations—belied that assumption.

The timing of Sony's action is puzzling, since it has two blockbusters coming out next summer—Men in Black III and The Amazing Spider-Man—whose box-office receipts could suffer as a result. (I'm also puzzled by the studio's remake of the Spider-Man franchise only 10 years after it produced the first of three Spider-Man movies, but that's a subject for another time.)

It turns out that the studios provide glasses to the theaters at a cost of $5 million to $10 million for a blockbuster and $1.5 million to $2 million for smaller movies. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this translates into about 50 cents of the ticket price. Where does the rest of the $3 to $4 3D premium go? Apparently, most of it goes back to the studios, giving them a net profit as far as I can see.

When the current 3D phenomenon first started, Disney told exhibitors it would cover the cost of glasses to encourage them to convert their auditoriums to 3D, including new polarization-preserving silver screens and 3D digital projectors. Other studios soon followed suit, and 3D took off like gangbusters.

Now, commercial 3D seems to be waning a bit, which could be one reason Sony decided to change its policy. Other studios are likely to implement similar changes, and top execs are now saying this was never intended to be an indefinite thing. But after investing in new screens and projectors, will exhibitors now pay for the glasses as well?

I doubt it. If they do, it will mean even higher prices for 3D tickets, which the moviegoing public will likely not tolerate. So what's the alternative? Those who want to enjoy 3D movies in a commercial cinema will have to bring their own glasses. This is also a very unpalatable solution, but the cost is incurred only once, not over and over as theaters constantly replace the glasses that many customers walk away with.

The ownership model is already the norm in the UK, Australia, Italy, and Spain. But US audiences are used to freebies, so it will be difficult to wean them from this habit. I imagine that theaters will sell glasses on-site, perhaps from vending machines, and higher-end models are already available from companies such as Marchon (seen above) and Polaroid. Those who have passive-3D TVs from LG or Vizio can use the glasses for those sets in commercial theaters, and of course, you can abscond with the RealD glasses you get at the theater over the next seven months—which I recommend if you have no other such glasses available to you.

Does this mean that 3D ticket prices will drop next summer? Yeah, right. Much more likely, it means that 3D will continue to wane, at least in commercial cinemas, which could lead to fewer 3D movies and render the 3D feature now found in many TVs moot. I hope this is not the case—I enjoy well-made 3D, and I've always believed that it was here to stay this time with such strong support from the studios and manufacturers. Unfortunately, Sony's move could be the death knell for 3D, which is especially ironic, since the studio is among its strongest proponents.

Stephen Trask's picture

There was a pretty good piece in the NY TImes this summer about the #-D surcharge and the way it is split. The average is about $3 a ticket. The theaters and the studios split the surcharge 50/50, with the studios paying 50 cents each for the glasses, the exhibitors 50 cents for the licensing of the technology and maintenance of the equipment. I am pretty sure this is from ticket one, meaning that for the opening weekends on a blockbuster, the theater has a much more favorable deal then it is used to. Ultimately, the studios were not interested in 3-d so much as finding a way to get exhibitors to "upgrade" their projectors to digital projectors. (Upgrade in quotes because digital projection doesn't look so great to me, aside from the lack of scratches and other defects.) Distributors and exhibitors have long done this little dance in which the former tries to get the latter to upgrade it's presentation and the theaters balk at the expense, knowing that it is usually hard to pass the cost on to the consumer. In this case, 3-D served it's purpose well - it paid for a bunch of digital projectors which make it much cheaper for studios to print and distribute films and convinced the consumer to pay for the upgrade by providing a unique and attractive product. Now that it has served it's function, I would expect to see the number of 3-D offerings begin to wane. The thrill is kind of gone for the ticket buyer and so it will be harder and harder to convince them (us) to pay that premium.

AVtheaterguy's picture

"The ownership model is already the norm in the UK, Australia, Italy, and Spain. But US audiences are used to freebies, so it will be difficult to wean them from this habit."

Thank you Scott for writing this little snippet. Just another hi-lite in which we as American's are spoiled and don't even realize it. We need to stop COMPLAINING like babies whenever we don't get our way, and sack up and become adults like the rest of the world is "TRYING" to do.

Sorry for my socio-economic rant.

JazzGuyy's picture

It's beginning to look more and more like the 1950s when 3D was hot and then faded from view. I expect to hear some announcements in the next few months that some movies shot in 3D won't be released that way.

Just like in the 1950s when the public came to see 3D more and more as a gimmick and was increasingly unhappy with having to wear glasses, the signs seem to be pointing toward the end of this 3D age.

applebyter's picture

*Some* theatres in Australia have an ownership model for 3D glasses. I got mine for $2. There is still a surcharge for seeing 3D movies, even if you bring your own glasses. So, we have the privelege of buying our glasses and then paying extra to use them :).