'Beauty and the Beast' gives 3-D another big boost, but is this really about 3-D or is it just about nostalgia?

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Last September, when the 3-D re-release of The Lion King roared to an impressive $30 million opening, Hollywood took serious notice. The movie industry’s 3-D boosters, who’d been facing tough questions about signs that audiences’ appetite for 3-D was waning, pointed to the huge success of the 3-D re-release of this 17-year-old movie and said, “See? Hakuna matata! No worries!” Disney ordered up 3-D conversions of Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and The Little Mermaid. James Cameron, who’s been busy getting Titanic ready for its upcoming 3-D re-release, said the success of The Lion King in 3-D proved to any nervous studio executives that gussying up a beloved old film with a new coat of 3-D paint could be big business. “They see the potential,” he told one interviewer. “All it takes is a little healthy greed and doubts tend to go away.” The estimated $25 million opening for Beauty and the Beast for this four-day weekend may not quite be as eye-popping as The Lion King‘s, but it clearly exceeded expectations, giving another dose encouragement to those who think that not only is 3-D still the wave of Hollywood’s future — it might also be the wave of its past.

But is the success of the Lion King and Beauty and the Beast re-releases really about 3-D, or can it mostly be chalked up to plain old nostalgia? Would audiences have turned out in such big numbers for those movies if they’d been re-released in 2-D, excited just to watch a childhood favorite on the big screen again? The jury is still out on that. Re-releasing old movies to try to cash in on nostalgia is nothing new—all kinds of movies, from The Exorcist to Snow White to Blade Runner to The Godfather, have been trotted out for a victory lap or two years after their original release, with varying degrees of success. The Wizard of Oz alone has been re-released four times. But today, with DVD revenues plummeting and domestic movie attendance down in 2011 to its lowest level in 16 years, the temptation of such easy money is stronger than ever. Studio execs are looking to get audiences into theaters any way they can—and with the cost of 3-D conversions dropping rapidly, 3-D re-releases of back-catalog hits could provide a new stream of virtually pure profit if the audience continues to show up for them. Then again, while “a little healthy greed” can dispel doubts, it can also lead to overreaching and backlash, especially when you consider the extra cost a moviegoer shells out for a 3-D ticket. We’ll get the next test of moviegoers’ enthusiasm for 3-D re-releases on Feb. 10, when Star Wars: Episode I –The Phantom Menace hits theaters in 3-D—and that’ll be an interesting one to watch. The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast were both much loved animation classics. The Star Wars franchise is one of the most successful and enduring creations in all of movie history, and many moviegoers are certainly amped to see George Lucas’ universe rendered in three dimensions, but The Phantom Menace is … well, it’s The Phantom Menace.

Personally, while I love seeing an old movie on the big screen as much as anyone, I prefer my nostalgia straight-up. It still annoys me that Greedo shot first and Han Solo stepped on that CGI Jabba the Hut’s tail in the 1997 “special edition” re-release of Star Wars—that wasn’t my Star Wars, the one that blew my five-year-old mind at the Dreamland Theater in Nantucket in the summer of 1977! I was heartened when Steven Spielberg expressed some misgivings recently about the new tweaks he’d made to E.T. for its 2002 theatrical re-release and vowed “there’s going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct.” But what do you think of 3-D re-releases? If you saw The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast in 3-D, was the 3-D-ness a big part of the draw? Or would you have gone to see the movie in 2-D out of pure nostalgia and enjoyed the experience as much or more? Which of the movies either slated to return in 3-D versions or rumored to be coming down the pike—Titanic, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Little Mermaid, Top Gun, the other five Star Wars movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy—excite you the most and which leave you a little flat?


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