James Cameron: 3-D Prophet or Hollywood Huckster?
We 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]