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.