James Cameron: 3-D Prophet or Hollywood Huckster?

jamescameron_showest300.jpgWe need to talk about James Cameron. Like, really talk about him -- especially after Monday's announcement of his new alliance to develop and enhance 3-D technology for broadcasters. Working alongside cinematographer Vince Pace, with whom Cameron created the Fusion camera system that shot Avatar, the Oscar-winner now plans to "make 3-D ubiquitous over the next five to 10 years on all platforms." We kind of knew this was coming, but do you believe him? Do you even want to believe him?

This might seem like a conversation we've already had, either back when Avatar was tearing up global box-office records or when Cameron was reported to have earned a $350 million back-end windfall from unprecedented theatrical and DVD revenue. The director as mogul took his domain one step further, superseding an increasingly frustrated Jeffrey Katzenberg as the chief prophet of the movies' 3-D revolution. Critics speculated as to Cameron's own, untold private investment in the Fusion rig, positing that Avatar was less technical milestone than feature-length advertisement for the technology in which he'd sunk at least tens of million of his own dollars.

Yeah, well, no kidding. At least he did have Avatar to show for it, a sui generis hybrid of high art, low culture, unalloyed demagoguery and blockbuster venture capitalism. And love it, hate it or sleep through it, there would be no turning back from Cameron's epic once the industry understood its lucrative potential.

But we're no longer talking strictly about box office at this point -- not with revenues down and some of this summer's biggest films (including Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens) eschewing the 3-D format altogether. We're talking about a stereoscopic chicken in every pot -- Cameron and Pace's pledge to develop practical 3-D for the viewer at home. It's not enough that, according to Cameron, 100 percent of cinemas will be 3-D ready by 2015; what's really key is that broadcasters feel confident in a system that presents 3-D images just as crisply and clearly in 2-D for those slow adopters among us. ""Broadcasting is the future of 3-D," Cameron told the National Association of Broadcasters convention on Monday, predicting that soon "everything will be produced in 3-D, and 2-D versions will be extracted from that." Pace added: "2-D viewing would need to be just as good as a 2-D production, with no compromise."

For now, though, the answer is literally affixing a 3-D camera to a 2-D camera. (Model name: the Shadow.) And there's where I get confused. To the extent their images are bright enough and viewers can avoid headaches, Cameron and Pace are inarguably developing revolutionary cinematic applications for 3-D. Avatar speaks for itself, but when even blockbuster-phobe Werner Herzog involves the handheld state-of-the-art in next week's fine 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, then you know there's at least some creative advantage that transcends Hollywood's more cynical attachment to ticket surcharges of $5 to $7 apiece.

But the development of 3-D for the home seems fishy -- particularly with the 2-D option, by which streamed, downloaded and/or DVR'd content have already destabilized conventional network programming as it is. (According to a brand-new study, online TV revenue totaled $1.6 billion in 2010, fueled by a 64.7 percent annual jump in online advertising.) Forget for a second about the "future of broadcasting." What's the future what we are supposed to watch? Unless you're a cable provider collecting a subscription premium, what's the upside of networks broadcasting, say, The Masters or the Oscars in 3-D? Cameron, who has long advocated for originating content in 3-D and railed against conversion processes, does blame impatient consumer electronics manufacturers for a "content gap," but I don't hear a solution. Without radical overhauls to TV's established visual templates (e.g. a baseball game, or Jeopardy!), all 3-D ultimately means is more top-shelf gimmickry for consumers to succumb to.

Enter Cameron the salesman: The guy who temporarily took to Twitter this winter to convince you to see the boneheaded 3-D bomb Sanctum (which he co-produced). The guy who wanted to personally turn Avatar into a series of novels. The guy who challenged "fucking asshole" Glenn Beck to a debate. The guy who promised, along with Fox, to plant a million trees by the end of 2010, offering one for adoption with the purchase of an Avatar DVD. And now, dealing with both a "content gap" and an accelerated tech start-up, he's the guy with an imperative to develop shows, movies and other programming for this brave new 3-D world. James Cameron wants to sell us both the cow and the milk. What alternative is there? Jersey Shore 3-D?

Let's face it: This isn't any real secret, nor is Cameron immune from the same bleeding-edge traps that caught up with Katzenberg a year ago. There is such a thing as growing too fast. Yet by developing and controlling the best hardware to create and disseminate this content, Cameron insulates himself from Arri, Panavision and other camera-manufacturing competition. Better yet, he also inherits a mandate to make that content his own -- to consolidate storytelling and technology in an age when he knows as well as anyone that theatrical moviegoing is terminally ill. Think of him as a less-complacent George Lucas, or a wonkier Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, The Cameron Network has a decent ring to it: All 3-D, all the time, brought to you the King of the World. There's little doubt he's selling. Now we've just got to figure out who's buying.

[Photo: Getty Images]



Comments

  • Jason Glugla says:

    If 3-D does become the primary mode of delivering films, then story telling will truly be dead. The only 3-D film which I have seen with a story worthy of being told was the 40 minute documentary Born to be Wild and that includes Avatar.

  • Mark says:

    Who's buying? Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson, for starters.

  • Bob Brown says:

    Do I really need to see CSI or 2 1/2 Men in 3D? Um... no. Do I want to sit down after a hard day and get a headache from wearing 3D glasses? Hell no.

  • mo7v3 says:

    For a director who became famous for making anti-technology/technology horror films, he doesn't seem to take his own word. Cameron=hypocrite. The same guy who tried to show how "beautiful" nature is in Avatar--yet all the nature was fake/computer-generated. I doubt Cameron even cares about the environment--he just knows that it's usually on everyone's political agenda and uses it to profit. Cameron is George Lucas x10 ('cept I believe Lucas' neck is becoming jabba the hut and controlling him to ruin cinema; and Cameron's ego is hurting him-what else is new).

  • CiscoMan says:

    Right now, I can't stream SportsCenter to my laptop via Time Warner Cable's internet service. Why? Because I don't also subscribe to Time Warner Cable TV. Networks can't agree on how to use Hulu. Studios are treating Netflix like the trophy wife that stole their husband. Cameron wants to toss 3-D onto an increasingly fragmented media world where content exclusivity packages are more and more prominent? I can't even imagine the gargantuan media bundle I'll need to drop $80/month (for the first 12 months, $120 thereafter) on just so I can throw on some glasses that narrow my TV's viewing angles. And the dongle I'll need to downscale to 2-D since everything will be broadcast 3-D. For God's sake, I'm going Amish.

  • casting couch says:

    Don't care about 3D; don't care about 48 or 60 fps cinema.
    Hollywood and media corporations cares because of all the extra money it brings in.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Yes, this -- hardware-wise. But it'll take more than three or four movies to program however many hours of 3-D Cameron and broadcasters have in mind. They're clearly willing to let him lead in exchange for the outlet to produce/distribute other content under their banner, but it goes back to Katzenberg; once the technical means are achieved, will content creation become every man for himself? Does Disney/DreamWorks really wanna rely on a wild card like Jim Cameron? Can it even afford to?

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Make room on the buggy! I'm joining you!

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    That goes without saying. Would you expect anything less? All I'm saying is don't be surprised when all you can actually buy anymore is a 3-D TV or the 3-D cable package -- preference be damned. It'll never be mandatory viewing, but it'll be mainstreamed and exploited beyond anything you ever imagined. The idea is to create a generation of media consumers today (at the movies, where the only reason to attend is for this technology) inured to the headaches and pains in the ass accompanying 3-D and who will come to expect it in their homes 5-10 years from now. I know it seems ridiculous from our older point of view, but so did the Internet to our forbears. This is happening.

  • Scott says:

    Maybe I'm confused, but it looks like you've mis-read the study of online TV revenue ("According to a brand-new study, online TV revenue totaled $719 million in 2010, a 64.7 percent jump from 2009.")
    I clicked on the link, and the study plainly states in the first line that revenue amounted to $1.6 billion. The figures you cite refer not to overall revenue, but to online TV advertising growth...

  • You're right, it should have cited the ad revenue growth specifically. I've revised. Thanks.

  • TrendyTim says:

    Maybe ill care one day, but until the technology is seemless (no glasses needed) i don't care. When it is seemless it better be photosensitive epilepsy friendly (which i have not seen any hard data on for current 3d tech), so my gf cant watch it, ergo i don't watch it (yes that is correct, i have never seen a non anaglyphic 3d movie).

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