Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Brief History of 3-D, Pt. 2 - Blu3D, Hardware Hostages, and Disney's "Deather" Campaign

The big news in home theater (although it's a few weeks old by now) is that Walt Disney Home Entertainment has announced "Star Wars: the Force Awakens" and last spring's live-action/CGI "The Jungle Book" for release on Blu3D+Blu-ray combo on Nov. 15--To go with its successful release of "Zootopia" on Blu3D+Blu-ray combo last June.
Why is this news?  Because they're both rather surprising releases coming from a studio that's spent the last three years SINGLEHANDEDLY trying to convince the home-video industry that "3-D is Dead", and that "The entire industry agrees."  Especially when it didn't.
It's a slow reversal of policy (recent live-action Disney Studio titles, like "Pete's Dragon" or "The BFG" are still missing from Blu3D disk), but--like certain political candidates that ultimately had to concede facts about presidential birth documents--it also appears to be a bit of a surrender as well.  Stubbornness is not a virtue, and even for Disney, wishes and fantasy can't last long against reality.

The Blu3D format has already survived six years despite being proclaimed "dead" since its first rollout, and almost non-stop ever since.  Disney hasn't been the only faction wielding non-stop propaganda campaigns, fueled by misdirected anger and desperate wishful thinking--But to peel back the onion layers and show the history of willful abuse, bungled mis-marketing and depth of persecution the format has taken literally since its release, it might be necessary to take the questions in some kind of chronological order:

- Why did Disney have a grudge against Blu3D?  - Well, they didn't always, you know--They were originally the champions of the format, and buying a new rollout Sony player at the CES meant not only getting the '09 Robert Zemeckis "A Christmas Carol", but also a bonus introduction with "Lion King"'s Timon & Pumbaa explaining why 3D in the home wasn't so complicated after all:

And Disney's populism--after also using their family base to take the stigma out of Blu-ray's first release two years earlier--was almost all Blu3D had going for it.
Like the current push for 4K UHD, the hardware companies saw the market for a new format, projected their own love onto a stingy, skeptical public, were lured by their own CES-presentation siren song, and believed that if the public wanted the hit movies, they'd rush to buy the new hardware living-room sets and players...OR ELSE.  
Every new format needs a Killer App, and Fox knew they had the title that would sell Blu3D in the home--The most popular movie of all time, Avatar!  And if you wanted the creatures of Pandora to fly out of your screen into your living room, guess what:  You wouldn't be able to unless you took the Big Plunge and made the hardware purchase.  Well, you'd probably have to anyway, but with the three major companies battling for the marketplace--Sony, Samsung and Panasonic--a "Hostage" war erupted over who could tie the most marketable Blu3D title as an exclusive to hardware-only bundles of new standalone Blu3D players, new 3D-compatible 3DTV screens, or new electronic-glasses bundles.  If you were an Avatar fan, Panasonic had your number, if you wanted a more high-class Sony, you'd at least get to watch IMAX documentaries nobody else did, and Samsung had Shrek and every other Dreamworks Animation title wrapped up for three years.  And if you were a new aspiring early-adopter fan in 2010 who liked Sony equipment but wanted to watch Avatar and Monsters vs. Aliens?--Sorry, pal, you're screwed.  You can hook a Sony player to a Panasonic screen, but you can't watch a Panasonic screen with Samsung glasses.  That's life during wartime.
Critics complained that the "Hostage" campaign may have been THE biggest, costliest, most disastrous mistake in home-theater history, and that's counting DiVX.  Not only were potentially hot-selling disk titles refused to be allowed to sell themselves ahead of the hardware, but it was the biggest PR goof of message a company could conceivably send out:  It had taken two years to convince a very skeptical and very stingy public why they should even consider throwing out their faithful DVD player for the miracle of Blu-ray--especially after they'd just had to buy a new HDTV flatscreen to keep up with the FCC's digital-broadcast changeover--and now to tell them they needed to buy even newer players and screens because the old ones wouldn't work with certain hit movies?...Oo.  That's going to take some doing.  And the one way you don't do it is to say "Buy more stuff or else".  That got the industry watching the stumble and eagerly waiting for the fall.
All the campaign ultimately achieved--apart from industry fan-frustration and flagging early sales--was give more aid and comfort to the paranoid cheapskate fans who complained that hardware companies were obviously in a "conspiracy" to "make us buy a new format" every two years to line their greedy pockets.  You can catch more flies with honey, and you can catch more viewers with movies, and since that didn't happen, the Angry Cheapskates ruled Blu3D's image in the media.

Disney may have also been the reason the format survived:  They didn't play the Hostage game.  Although you could get a copy of "Alice in Wonderland" free with your bundle-package of new Sony equipment, Alice, A Christmas Carol, and new Blu3D reissues of their recent titles like Chicken Little, were available as retail off-the-shelf disks.  
Having been through the same public hesitance about Blu-ray, they tried the same strategy that had worked but been misunderstood with customers the first time, sold 3D disks in combos with regular 2D Blu-rays, and said "Buy now, watch later!"  And even if Tim Burton's "Alice" was insufferable and Zemeckis' "Carol" was psychotic, at least you could buy them and watch them later, while you tied a yellow ribbon for our "Pandora Held Hostage: Day 370" captives to come home.  
Ultimately, in 2012--and just before Panasonic could take the new Blu3D disks of "Rio" and the Star Wars: Episode I conversion hostage--the Big Three hardware makers gave into industry criticism and bad sales, and released their hostages for retail-disk sale.  The war was over, and boy, did we want it.

- Sounds like Disney and Blu3D were the best of friends...So what happened?? - Remember those Angry Cheapskates mentioned earlier?  Disney seemed to attract them back in those '08-'10 days.  Michael Eisner had long since been kicked off the company after 2005, but nobody was in a mood to forgive the company, and any bad or puzzling marketing decision was still immediately seen as the greedy, conspiratorial Ghost of Michael Eisner, petting his white Persian cat, plotting to rob good people of their money.
And the big problem rooted BACK to those combos Disney had hit upon:  Combos were starting to be a bigger and clunkier tradition to uphold, with more new formats.  A Blu-ray disk needed to be packaged with a DVD.  A Blu3D disk needed to be packaged with a regular 2D Blu-ray.  Streaming didn't exist, so if you wanted the "Digital Copy", that was also downloaded on iTunes...From another CD-Rom disk.  By the time Pixar's "Brave" was released, it came as a 5-disk Blu3D+BD+DVD+Bonus+Digital Copy Combo for the popular price of $45-49.  The Blu3D format, like any new disk format (who here remembers when Blu-ray used to cost more than $29.99?), was still pricey, but to charge the customer for five disks when he wanted one or two was either unmanageably clunky or highway robbery.  
The complaints became so loud, Disney tried to do the right thing:  They experimented with new marketing strategies trying to figure out how to reduce the Disk Clutter--One successful result was that Streaming had replaced the iPod, so there was no more need for a physical Digital-Copy disk, when a paper-insert code could unlock the movie on their new DisneyMoviesAnywhere service...One down, four to go.  The other experiment was a bit less successful--Since the 3D-adopter public, all Blu fans, said they'd gladly do without the DVD, Disney tried seeing if they could market just the Blu3D-only disk to its niche audience, and let the non-3D Blu fans enjoy their wider-release mass-market combo without.  2013's "Oz the Great & Powerful" was released as various BD+DVD mass combos, and as a Blu3D-only release.  It was a good idea...And NOBODY GOT IT.
Fans had already complained about "cluttered" combos leaving no room for bonus-feature disks, which meant Cars 2 only had bonus features on the 2D combo, not the 3D, and fans tinfoil-hatted that Disney was deliberately plotting for them to "buy both".  The 3D-only Oz was also priced at $39, the same price as the mass-market 4-disk combo, which rather defeated the whole point of releasing smaller combos in the first place and reducing the price--Guess how that was interpreted.  The rare non-paranoid fans, who wanted to see Blu3D marketed more sensibly, protested that a 3D combo should at least have the 2D Blu-ray included, for friends and emergencies--Disney graciously conceded that point, and offered a mail-in exchange.
For the Angry Cheapskates Who Didn't Get It, the Oz 3D cover ended up becoming the ultimate iconic image of images for their conspiracy-theories:  Disney, the company of $40+ movies, was the Wicked Witch of the West, and they were out to get your money and your little dog, too.

Disney, we can assume, may have been...rather hurt.  They never heard from any fans except angry ones, very possibly assumed that it Just Wasn't Worth The Grief to target niche fans, took their ball and went home.  So there, meanies.   In 2014, although their hit Frozen had already been a smash seller on 2D Blu-ray, a "later" Blu3D release was promised to merchants with a new book/toy marketing push in October.  For never disclosed reasons (some suspect manufacturing problems), the release never appeared, the "Sing-Along" version was pushed as the big fan-favorite tentpole for the holiday season, the 3D Frozen and a 3D Disney Fairies movie both skipped physical release and went to digital instead.  And until 2016, although all were available on digital streaming, no Walt Disney Studios movie had been released on physical Blu3D disk since.
The reason they gave was that, well, "the entire industry had now given up" on the format.  Um, well, not the ENTIRE industry--Warner, Sony, Fox, Paramount and Universal still steadily continued to release major Blu3D combos for mass retail.  More embarrassingly, Disney's own sub-studios of Marvel and Pixar, which were independent and allowed to put together their own disk releases, continued to release Blu3D combos steadily, and enjoy healthy sales for "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Inside Out" on 3D.  (And figured out that all customers wanted was a nice, slim 3D+2D Blu combo for $29.) But, er, at least Summit and Lionsgate cut back, if it's any consolation.

- But at least Disney still had the theatrical movies, didn't they? - Yes.  They just got a little too overexcited, is all.  Conversions of existing 2-D movies were the big thing packing moviegoers in and annoying the haters with "unnecessary" poor-quality conversions that still required the $3-5 ticket-surcharge at the box office.
Since their 3D "Nightmare Before Christmas" conversion had now become a popular annual staple, Disney tried releasing more and more 3D-conversions of their traditional-animated classics, beginning with their usual never-fail The Lion King.  It was their first conversion and a novelty, so it packed parents wanting to "pass on the tradition", unquote, of seeing it in a theater with their kids (theatrical reissues had been dead for about seven years by this point), and became an unexpected runaway hit.  What the audience didn't expect was A) there would be more of them, and B) if you already owned a Blu3D player, it would be headed for disk in a few months anyway...And if the audience didn't know, it didn't take them long to catch on.  A reissue of Beauty & the Beast, which was already available on Blu3D, had diminishing returns, Finding Nemo and Cars did middling-well, and when a 3D Monsters Inc. had already been announced on disk by the time it hit theaters, who even bothered?   If Disney was hoping every reissue would be Lion King just for showing up, they were in for a tad of disappointment.  
A completed but unreleased 3D The Little Mermaid was exiled to disk, while Disney instead tried to find the new theater-reissue "gimmick" that would pack them in instead.  A new "Interactive iPhone-friendly" re-release, involving an iPhone/iPad app game that everyone would play in their seats interacting with the onscreen movie (as their Second Screen apps did with their Blu-ray disks), became an unholy disaster with the audience.  Theater-cellphone hate was just starting to become an issue, and the last thing people wanted was to be asked to bring a hundred glowing blue screens to the theater.  An Interactive "Nightmare Before Christmas" never surfaced, and it seems Disney never did find that "replacement" that would let them ignore ungrateful 3D-reissues after all.
More quick fodder to escape blame, and explain why "well, nobody wanted" 3D in theaters after all, did they?

- But everyone said 4K UHD was going to replace 3D! - Uh, yeah, everyone DID "say" that, didn't they?  It wasn't so much that many of those in love with the idea were interested in the format, as in the idea that something would replace the old one.  It was the same "Welcome Our New Overlords" idea as the industry was promoting--namely, that Here Comes the New Thing, so There Goes the Old Thing--and it was a desire for most of the Angry Paranoid Cheapskates to see Blu3D PUNISHED more than simply replaced.  Like 3-D moviegoers in the 50's who tossed it over for Cinemascope, those annoyed by expensive or clunky 3DTV glasses cheered news of the latest mythical in-development "Glasses-free 3DTV!" that seemed to pop up in industry press more often than cold fusion. 
Most of the loudest supporters at the beginning barely knew what 4K UHD was, or how much it would cost, but--like some wishful Trump supporters attacking Mexicans and homeless and telling them "Trump's gonna getcha!"--fed-up 3D haters praised the new CES reports of 4K UHD to the skies, just to tell that expensive Blu3D "conspiracy" was what was Coming to Get Them.   At the worst, it was an excuse for the stingier critics to indulge their cynicism that "Well, there the industry goes again, and they'll probably foist Holo-TV on us in 2020!"  Whatever, as long as the enemy of their enemy was their friend...Those old 2008 traumas die hard.  
And while Samsung did get a little overly optimistic enough to say "Why bother with 3DTV, if 4K is on its way?" what nobody expected was that many of the first UHD sets rolled out with 3D capability as an option.  Wait, what happened to the "war" we were all hoping for?...Did they sign some stupid peace treaty behind our backs??  Even the first line of 4K UHD Blu-rays, like Ghostbusters '16, X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Trek: Beyond continue to come out in both 4K UHD combo and Blu3D combo, and the market, as it should, continues to decide.   And from many indications, it may be that 4K is having less chances of "coming to get" 3D, or anyone, in the next five years, but that's for the customers to figure out.  Unlike the companies, THEY know what they're doing.

Industry critics often sound a bit...disgruntled that the, quote, "dead format walking" kept on walking, and didn't fall down on cue like they believed it was supposed to--The pro-4K supporters continue to tell us that Blu3D will "probably remain as a 'zombie format' for another year or two'" before the public's excitement about the newie-new format will take over, and certainly 3D's had a good six years to shuffle along.
But not every "zombie" stays dead:  The public had written off Laserdisc as the "loser" of the late 70's first format wars for most of the 80's, since, well, everyone knew the VCR, with its taping ability, had taken over, and you could get a VHS at every Blockbuster video on the corner.  Most LD fans bought their discs from Japanese imports, where laser had never lost popularity (VHS was a rental-only format over there, and too expensive to buy movies for the home), and by the late 90's, the "lost" growing cult of laser fans were just starting to make VHS fans aware of a format with digital-stereo sound and amazing picture clarity.  Siskel & Ebert, on their movie-buff TV show, began persuading people to take a second look at the "dead" LD format in the mid-90's, and mainstream curiosity in the prestige format was just starting to reawaken...And then DVD came along in '97, and took all the public credit for a laser format with better picture, sound, and digital convenience.  But the seeds of a Laser Renaissance had been planted, and DVD would never have made a convincing argument if we hadn't already started talking about something better out there.

So we can ask the question:  Why has everyone murderously hated Blu3D as a home-theater format for six years, with a passion far beyond simple hatreds of spinach or accordion music?  And the answer depends on whether or not anyone has actually sat down and watched it.  There have certainly been a lot of reasons thrown about that haven't even bothered to.
It's easy to complain about an "Expensive" format, or an "Annoying" one, or even cry that studios are "Out to get you" by throwing new technology in your direction when you weren't prepared for it...But when, like LD, you calm down, let cool heads prevail, take a deep breath and count to ten over a few months or years, why not sit down afterwards and watch a movie?  You may know a techie friend with who jumped on, and if he has a spare pair of electronic Active 3D glasses handy, it's a safe guarantee you won't have much trouble talking him into showing you something off his shelf.
And you may like what you see.

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