3D Movies Roll in Money, but Roil Some Stomachs

3-D glasses at the January 2013 International CES in Las Vegas.
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3-D glasses at the January 2013 International CES in Las Vegas.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" had the best opening weekend of any movie released in 2013 so far, with a $79 million domestic box office haul. But there's more to that figure than meets the eye.

The movie is playing in standard format and in 3D. At the AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 theater in Manhattan, a standard format ticket is $14, while a "Real D" 3D ticket costs $18.50 and an "IMAX 3D" ticket is $20. This type of price structure has had an enormous effect on the bottom lines of both the movie studios and the theaters.

"If you look from 2009 to 2012, there were about 102 nationwide 3D releases by the studios," Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database, said in an interview. "They earned about $11.84 billion at the domestic box office. In the same 3-year span, domestic releases earned $42 billion, so 3D accounted for around 28 percent of revenue."

The expansive 3D epic is keeping the theater-going experience competitive in the age of streaming and downloading by offering something filmgoers can't get at home. But ominous developments may lie ahead, if the findings of a recent scientific study are any indication.

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"Are There Side Effects to Watching 3D Movies?" is the name of the study, conducted by Angelo G Solimini of Sapienza University in Rome. Adult volunteers--497 of them--watched the movie of their choice in standard and 3D formats, then reported any symptoms of visually-induced motion sickness (VIMS).

More than half, 54.8 percent, reported "some sickness" after the 3D viewing, compared to only 14.1 percent after the standard version. The study found that "viewers of 3D may experience nausea (nausea, increased salivation, sweating) and disorientation (dizziness, vertigo, fullness of head)."

Recent events already indicated, anecdotally at least, that 3D can make for an unpleasant moviegoing experience for some.The 2012 blockbuster "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was met by complaints that the 3D format, combined with the movie's high frame rate, had caused nausea and migraines at preview screenings, according to London's The Daily Mail.

Warner Bros., the film's distributor, issued a response to the allegations. "We have been screening the full-length HFR 3D presentation of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' extensively and feedback has been extremely positive, with none of thousands who have seen the film projected in this format expressing any of the issues described by two anonymous sources in media reports," the statement said.

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Simanton noted that the "The Hobbit" has earned more than $1 billion worldwide, so if any moviegoers had an unpleasant experience, it didn't affect box office receipts for either the film or the format. But if the findings in Solimini's study are indicative of a larger trend, it would spell trouble for the stream of revenue that 3D has given movie theaters and studios since "Avatar" came along.

Still, Simanton said that new movie technology has been the subject of scares before, all of which came to nothing. "Originally, theater owners were concerned that you couldn't watch 'Snow White,' because they didn't think you could watch a movie that was in color for that long," he said.