Which raises a question: Were those conversion costs necessary? Why didn’t James Cameron and company just rerelease the massively successful film in its original two-dimensional glory? Surely, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic -- and the 15th anniversary of the film -- provide excuse enough. But movie studios, which once rereleased their big hits with some regularity, have more or less ceased doing so, even as more costly 3D rereleases have become more common. How come they don’t put 2D classics back in theaters anymore?
The simple answer, of course, is that the wide availability of old movies on DVD, cable and so on has made the practice obsolete. And yet many popular movies that have returned more or less untouched to theaters in the last 20 years have done quite well at the box office. And conversations with those involved with 3D rereleases suggest that Hollywood executives are simply too focused on producing and marketing new movies -- or, increasingly, revamping old ones -- to consider reviving this bygone feature of the big-studio business model.
Hollywood will rerelease at least four 2D hits in 3D in 2012: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” “Titanic,” and “Finding Nemo.” Such conversions are becoming common enough that a handful of sizable companies have sprung up specializing in the process; these companies take on the costs of conversion for a share of the back end. “Titanic’s” 3D conversion cost $18 million, and such costs are coming down with technological advances. Still, that’s a hefty production price to pay on movies that were already popular in their original form -- especially given the past success of un-converted rereleases.
Consider “Star Wars”: According to Box Office Mojo, the 1997 rereleases of the original trilogy generated $138.3 million, $67.6 million, and $45.5 million, respectively -- not to mention the $2 billion marketing deal with PepsiCo and all the promotional book and toy revenue. Lucas reportedly spent $10 million to “rework” the first installment, from 1977, and $2.5 million each on “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
And that’s hardly the only successful example from recent years. The 20th-anniversary rerelease of “E.T.” raked in $35.3 million on 3,000 screens. “Gone with the Wind” made $6.8 million on only 214 screens in 1998 -- which was the eighth rerelease in the film’s history. That same year, “Grease” made $28.4 million and was, for one weekend, the No. 2 movie in America, while “The Wizard of Oz” made $14.8 million.
Smaller-scale rereleases have also done well. The 1997 re-issue of “The Godfather,” for instance, earned $1.2 million on only 40 screens, while “Citizen Kane” took home $1.6 million in 1991.
In the age of widescreen, high-def TVs, with old classics more accessible to audiences than ever before, studios have apparently become convinced that such profits hinge on a special director’s cut or, more likely, newly added 3D effects. Or they may have simply not thought that much about it. “Every studio has gone through their library and considered what films they can redo in 3D,” one executive told us. “I don’t think anyone’s really considering just rereleasing films, though. I mean, we’re movie studios. We’re in the business to make new films.” © Slate 2012
*Pagels frequently writes about film for Slate.