11th November, 2011

Is 3D living up to the hype?

Sales of 3D TV sets in the UK remain small and few commissions are yet available. But as the market matures, new business models are emerging, finds Adrian Pennington.


The hyperbole surrounding 3D, with almost every film release, TV commission or hardware development making news, belies the fact that the market is still extremely young. Take-up of 3D TV sets remains small – fewer than 500,000 in the UK, according to media consultant Futuresource – as does the number of distribution outlets, while there are warnings that the box office performance of 3D films is in decline.


Yet extrapolating that to mean that stereo vision is a fad that will soon fade away is a stretch too far. Futuresource predicts the installed base of 3D-ready displays will triple by the end of 2012 to 2.3 million (9% of UK households) and there are several new 3D channels in Europe, India and Africa opening up. Provided production is treated with care, there is no reason not to consider 3D a money-making option.


Onsight chief operating officer Andy Shelley says: “It is very early days and in some respects the business model is still forming. A lot of the productions we worked on, such as Kew 3D and Meerkats 3D, have multiple deliverables from TV to theatrical release and IMAX to help make the model work.


“If the idea is good enough, and it fits the right kind of target demographic, then a broadcaster like Sky will help to make budgets work. People can also make 3D more profitable for themselves by striking co-pro deals or banking material for archive.”


New model


Even what is arguably Europe’s most successful 3D TV producer admits that the natural business model of going to one broadcaster does not work in 3D.


“We’ve had to look at other models, and what is encouraging is that theatrical is beginning to kick in,” says Atlantic Productions chief executive Anthony Geffen, noting that the cinema run for Flying Monsters 3D in Europe and the US is “beginning to make some good money”.


Paul Berrow, who runs Log Media, distributor of Carmen In 3D and the 2011 World Music Awards, also in 3D, calls for realistic expectations.


“It is incredibly unpredictable because you are starting from a blank canvas that is being filled in at random,” he says. “The big players such as Discovery and Sky are moving at an entirely different pace from some European territories that have only just entered the fray.


“Everyone is trying to get empirical evidence about what works for what type of audience. Consequently, the market changes every month with different feedback from broadcasters. What sold last year might not be wanted now.”


He advises that internationally branded one-off event programming – such as music concerts and action sports – remains the best option while distribution remains limited.


“Glasses are probably the biggest stumbling block to 3D TV growth but there also has to be something to drive people to purchase 3D TVs and 3D subscriptions,” he adds.


There is an oft-quoted analogy that the status of the 3D market mirrors that of HD, which took the best part of 15 years to mature.


“In the early days of HD, there was the exact same situation: a number of people worried that this was never going to work because HD incurred technical overheads, new creative issues and slow market penetration,” says Shelley.


“As more people engage with 3D production – some producers are onto their second and third projects – the skill sets will grow and 3D will become less alien. Though whether 3D has the same wide market potential as HD or will remain a niche means of telling a story, I am less sure.”


For stereographic supervisor David Cox, the main barrier is justification. “The relatively small 3D TV audience doesn’t create an impetus to generate either more channels or higher budgets, as it doesn’t provide high enough commercial revenue as yet.


“I think this will change as more 3D-ready TVs are bought and as viewers increasingly source their content beyond traditional broadcasters, such as streaming channels.”


Game changer


The arrival of 3D-capable mobile and tablet devices that have the advantage of not requiring special glasses “could be a significant game changer,” Geffen says. “More people will see 3D content on tablets and it will make them want to see it on TV. Our future 3D projects will start to link content on those new platforms. It will define our business model going forward.”


Geffen is the first to admit that the handful of 3D TV commissions currently available are being won by a select few companies. “The principal backing for 3D will inevitably go to those few companies that have proved themselves and committed resources to learn the necessary skills,” he says.


“They will be the companies that have to deliver on a big scale. But that does not cut off innovation from other people. There is absolutely a place for producers on much lower budgets, experimenting with cheaper technology. People need to scale back a bit and put the emphasis on why 3D illuminates a story better than 2D.”


For Geffen, the number one impediment remains a lack of knowledge and experience of 3D. “It’s just not easy to do. Kit is still problematic because you will always have complications with a rig. At the cheaper end, new, integrated 3D cameras are very limited so a lot of stuff shot on them wouldn’t meet the technical specs of broadcasters.”


Berrow says there is no easy formula but suggests producers “do their research extremely carefully, and recognise that the market can change from the time you start to when you are ready to sell. Be very conservative about the genre you take on, but creatively ambitious in inception.”


Arguably, there is more opportunity for small and medium-sized organisations to get involved in 3D because they are likely to be more agile.


“The key thing to recognise is that 3D is a premium product and not to see it as some ticket to get otherwise uninteresting and unworthy programmes financed,” says Cox.


The technical difficulty of 3D is a red herring – if you believe the experts who ask you to employ an expert. “Producers shouldn’t be considering kit as such,” says Cox.


“They should be involving the right professionals who know which kit they want to use to provide the ability and efficiency needed for any given production. If producers have been put off 3D in the past directly because of kit, in most cases they are simply talking to the wrong people, or perhaps trying to do it themselves without prior experience.”


Shelley says there is no silver bullet that will reduce the cost of making 3D. “What is happening is that manufacturers are talking to each other and developing innovative products that fill in the gaps in the workflow to reduce costs.”


For example, Avid’s Media Composer 5 has stereo tools for offline editing, while Onsight has developed its own free software patch to streamline 3D editorial into Final Cut Pro.


“Budgets really depend on the type and complexity of the show,” says Shelley. “For some, it can be twice as much as 2D or it can be 20% more. A lot of cost can be reduced by careful forward planning.”


Shelley says the year ahead will help define 3D TV. “Sky will continue to innovate and there is movement among a number of European broadcasters. Plus the Olympics will be a real test-bed for how to cover an event of that scale in 3D and will hopefully showcase what is possible to the consumer.”


Broadcast Magazine 11/11/2011