The $175m flop so bad it could end the 3D boom

Disney expected 'Mars Needs Moms' to strike it rich in cinema's new gold rush. Then audiences saw it... Geoffrey Mcnab reports

At cinemas in Hollywood and beyond, children have been watching a big-budget 3D animated feature called Mars Needs Moms. Most will have been happy enough with the film, produced by Robert Zemeckis (who ranks as a pioneer of digital 3D film-making along with James Cameron).

Wearing their "RealD" spectacles, viewers munch popcorn as they watch a far-fetched yarn about Milo, a nine-year-old who doesn't eat his broccoli and whose mother ends up being kidnapped by Martians. What these children don't realise is that the film is at the centre of a ferocious debate about 3D ticket pricing that threatens to derail 3D film-making altogether.

To put it bluntly, Mars Needs Moms has been a mega-flop. The film cost about $175m (£110m) to make and market – yet grossed less than $7m on its opening weekend in the US.

Worldwide box-office receipts were given an almighty boost in 2009-10 with the success of Cameron's Avatar. In its wake, studios and independents started cranking out 3D films in their dozens (or converting 2D films to 3D in post-production). Cinemas rushed to install digital 3D systems and exhibitors raised ticket prices for 3D films by up to 40 per cent. Industry analysts calculated that 3D was adding, on average, 20 per cent to a film's theatrical takings.

Now, though, a simmering backlash has reached boiling point. Angry parents are balking at the surcharge being levied on 3D movies and Mars Needs Moms has become the object of their ire. The New York Times described the film as "a consumer referendum for 3D ticket pricing for children". Cinemagoers voted by staying away in their droves.

Ben Stassen, a Belgian producer and director whose new 3D film, Sammy's Adventure, opens in British cinemas this month, has long warned that audiences would revolt against overpriced, second-rate 3D movies. "People are getting fed up with having the surcharge on 3D and not getting the goods," Stassen says. "People might reject 3D as a whole and say the hell with that."

Just as in the 1950s, the era of 3D films such as Bwana Devil and House Of Wax, or the early 1980s (when exploitation pictures Amityville 3D and Jaws 3D briefly piqued the curiosity of young audiences), there is a danger that the Avatar-era will be short-lived. With cinemagoers becoming exasperated by the quality and pricing of the fare, it may be left to home consumers to "rescue" 3D, as the format becomes popular among television shows and computer games.

In recent weeks, Robert Zemeckis has taken a drubbing in the press because of the failure of Mars Needs Moms. His planned 3D version of 1968 Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine has been cancelled and Disney has closed his digital film studio, ImageMovers Digital. The irony is that Zemeckis is one of the visionary figures in digital film-making. His Christmas film, The Polar Express (2004), made with the same motion-capture computer animation technique that was used in Mars Needs Moms, received mixed reviews on its release but is now seen by many as a classic. His version of The Christmas Carol (2009) was arguably too mawkish for adults and too scary for children but at least it used 3D in a genuinely inventive way.

"Zemeckis is one of the few US filmmakers who is taking 3D really seriously and is adapting his language to the medium," Stassen says of the American director.

So where now for 3D film-making? Should exhibitors cut prices? Many argue that there is no real justification for the current pricing structure. In London's West End cinemas,3D certainly doesn't come cheap. For example, if a family of four (two adults and two children) want to see Gnomeo And Juliet 3D this weekend at the Empire Leicester Square, they can expect to pay £56.60 for the tickets, including booking fee.

For Stassen, the pricing isn't the problem; the experience is what matters most. He argues that audiences will be prepared to pay a surcharge if they know they're going to watch a "real", fully immersive 3D movie that uses the format in an inventive and uncynical way. "My vision is that a 3D cinema should not cost 20 per cent more. It should cost maybe 100 per cent more – but everything should be perfect. When people come out of a 3D theatre, they have to say 'wow'."

How the stand-out hits add up

Avatar (2009)

Directed by James Cameron, the sci-fi blockbuster cost an estimated $500m (£308m) to make and grossed about $2.8bn worldwide.



Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton's re-telling of Lewis Caroll's classic tale cost $200m to make and brought in $1.02bn.



Despicable Me (2010)

Chris Renaud's animated film cost $69m to make and made $528m at the global box office.



Toy Story 3 (2010)

The Oscar-winning film directed by Lee Unkrich had a $200m budget but made $1.06bn. It is the most successful animated film of all time.

Up (2009)

The Disney Pixar animation, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, had a production budget of $175m and grossed $731m.



Shrek Forever After (2010)

The Mike Mitchell-directed animation had a budget of $165m and made $750m globally.



How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

The Oscar-nominated film, directed by Dean DuBlois and Chris Sanders, was produced for $165m and earned $495m at the box office.



Monsters Vs Aliens (2010)

Rob Letterman's animation had a production budget of $175m and grossed $382m worldwide.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen