Four Eyes

It seems simple enough. You wait in line, pay $15, put on the dorky 3D glasses, and watch the 3D movie. Popcorn costs extra. What you might not realize is the titanic struggle going on around you. And I’m not talking about the action on the screen. I’m talking about the theater owner who’s mad as hell at the movie studio.

It might take a Supreme Court ruling to finally settle the matter, but historically there’s been a give and take between studios and theaters. The studio pays for the costs to make a 3D movie, including the glasses needed to watch it. In return, the theaters paid for the upfront costs to upgrade their facilities to project 3D movies. In the middle is the moviegoer who buys a ticket from the theater, which takes its cut and passes the rest back to the studio.

Now, Sony Pictures is threatening the balance of power by stating that it will no longer pay for the glasses. The theater owners, who operate on slim margins, sure don’t want to pay either. So, that leaves only one party (that would be you) to pay for the glasses. While you might not be happy about that, neither are theater owners; for starters, they think that extra charge would mean that you’d buy less popcorn from them.

How this plays out is a question of leverage. Sony wants this to start on May 1, 2012 and not coincidentally, soon after, its two summer 3D blockbusters are coming out: Men in Black III and The Amazing Spider-Man. The cost of glasses averages about 50 cents per ticket and that can add up to $10 million or so over the course of a film’s theatrical run.

The National Association of Theater Owners is pushing back, saying the 3D ticket surcharge is already high enough, and doesn’t want to add to the ticket cost. The three big theater chains, AMC, Cinemark USA, and Regal, could act in concert and refuse to show the 3D versions of the Sony films, and only show 2D instead. But would they really do that?

20th Century Fox tried a similar move in 2009 before Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but backed down because no other studio supported it. Now, following Sony’s announcement, Fox says it is revisiting the issue. With enough studios onboard, the decision could stick this time.

A moviegoer could avoid the entire issue by buying glasses, and making sure to bring them along whenever they wanted to see a 3D movie. But there are several different 3D systems and the glasses are not cross-compatible. You’d need to own several pairs, and be careful to make sure you brought along the right one, or carry them all along, all the time. So, that’s not really an option, and we’re back to the status of peons waiting to see which master has the most leverage. Confrontation, boycott, or compromise? Who knows. But somehow I suspect us little guys will end up with the tab.

I just don’t know. I can accept paying $15 to see a 3D movie. But I’m not sure I want to pay an extra 50 cents so I can look dorky.