I have been to see a few movies in 3D now and there is a marked difference between what works and what doesn't:
- Movies with a high amount of CGI visual effects lend themselves more easily to this format, as the 3D effect can be integrated during the creation of a sequence rather than tacked onto footage of physical effects afterwards. Often this means fantasy movies, computer-animated movies, or sometimes movies with a high proportion of faked explosions!
- The 3D effect works best during scenes with a lot of screen depth. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but in an intimate scene where two people are talking in a room there is very little point in forcing that depth perception because a) you'll just hit the wall the of the room and have no further back to go and b) scenes like that aren't powered by visual effects but by emotional energy. Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon had some great 3D moments because they both involve flying scenes in vast landscapes, so the 'distance' between the background and foreground is far more dramatic.
- Gimmicks don't work. I found 3D innovative not because it brought the foreground forwards, but because it pushed the background backwards. A movie is a self-contained world so giving it depth is fine because I can easily believe that I'm just watching that world through a sheet of glass, but if you make things jump out at people you break the Fourth Wall and this can upset their suspension of disbelief and ruin the illusion. Even some of the films with better usage of 3D can't seem to resist the urge to try and poke you in the eye with something. HTTYD only did it twice, but it was in those moments that the effect was at it's weakest. I love that film unreasonable amounts, however I still find those few seconds jarring.
With all that in mind, I think that it's more than empty pockets that is hamstringing 3D at the moment. Probably 3D sales will recover somewhat when the economy does, but the key word here is Gimmick. 3D is a gimmick, and that's not necesarily a bad thing when it's used right but gimmicks do tend to have a very short shelf life because once we've got over the novelty of them we don't care any more. It happened in the 50s and it'll happen again. Even in a recession people are still willing to pay for extra bits and pieces if they feel they are getting added value for their money, but 3D isn't added value for the following two reasons.
If a story is good, 3D won't improve it.
If a story is bad, 3D can't save it.
We never really went to the cinema to marvel at the technical effects. If they were there that was nice and we were interested, at least while we got used to them, but you don't revisit a movie out of appreciation for a really well rendered explosion. As some animator guy from WETA Digital said, "the best visual effects are the ones that blend in so well you don't notice them". We went to the cinema for the story, whether that means watching some swearing American guy in a vest gun down German terrorists to save his wife at Christmas, or see a rich girl and a poor boy find love on a really big boat, or cheer as a famous man with a terrible stutter learns to overcome his fears and gives the speech of his life. I certainly didn't go to see the same film four times because I thought the 3D was nifty, I went because I loved the story of the boy and his dragon. Take the emotional relationships and away and a boat is just a boat, a bunch of guns is just a bunch of guns, a speech is just words without meaning. It's the stories that will stick with us, and not the effects. So even if the multi-million industry of 3D is doomed, again, maybe that's okay because it's no great loss. It will never hurt the stories we love most.