Back in the late 1970s, there was a rumour that John Frankenheimer was preparing to make his next film in a bygone movie phenomenon called 3D. A call to the film-maker confirmed the scuttlebutt.
He explained that during preparation of his horror film Prophecy, he was approached to employ a new process that didn't require those cumbersome glasses. It was ultimately abandoned because the effect only worked within a limited viewing corridor and one had to keep one's head absolutely still - not possible if you want to shock the audience.
It's difficult to sum up in a single word or phrase the industry's current attitude toward the revival of 3D. Rhapsodic comes to mind and certainly there's a general feeling that upcoming productions in the process (eight on the release schedule in 2009) could be the commercial salvation of a movie-going experience that, depending on one's source, has stagnated or experienced the most tremulous of growth.
Joe Peixoto of Real D, the chief supplier of digital 3D projectors, has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he says, 'and it can cure cancer'.
In the US, industry pundits point to the box-office success of Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best Of Both Worlds in 3D - it grossed approximately $65m on 650 screens - as evidence of the potency of the new, improved stereoscopic cinema. Sceptics suggest that had the film gone out in conventional 35mm at 3,000 venues, it would have taken a comparable gross.
The right equipment
The not necessarily logical leap is that a greater number of digitally equipped multiplexes will be an irresistible audience magnet. To cadge from the movie lexicon: if you build it they will come. And so there's tremendous pressure from the movie behemoths for the exhibition firms to ramp up conversion to the new technology.
Eight films over 12 months may not seem like a potential traffic jam but U2 3D pushed back its wideish release when Hannah Montana expanded on initial plans for a one-week only engagement.
Internationally, there are very few nations that are aggressively going digital. Projectors cost roughly $75,000 and cost-sharing arrangements that exist in North America have yet to be hammered out elsewhere. One need only look to the glacial expansion of Imax large-format theatres in the past decade to see that even a proven enhancement must clear a high hurdle for multiplexes with perilously thin profit margins.
More bang, more bucks
Another factor that has the industry salivating is that, like the large-format films, 3D movies can demand higher ticket prices. There was unanimity among participants at the recent ShoWest that while film patrons would not pay more for digital movies, they will and are putting down more for the in-depth experience. At this point, the higher price is characterised as 'what the market will bear'.
The giddy atmosphere surrounding the recycled phenomenon is understandable in an industry that loves showmanship and thrives on optimism. Whether it is cinematic salvation, passing fancy or something in between will become clear in the next two years.
One thing that is already apparent is that these 'new' pictures look like their more conventional cousins. That doesn't bode well if anyone was looking on 3D as a means of expanding the audience by attracting people that don't or rarely go to the movies.
The ultimate test is the movies themselves, and a look back at the early titles made in 3D ought to be a sharp reminder why it was a curious fad 50 years ago. It wasn't the process but the fact there was more sizzle than steak. House Of Wax endures, along with a few films including Dial M For Murder that tacked on some effects. But there was a belief 'they' would come; they did, but it wasn't an experience worth repeating.