3D movies existed since the 1950s when a B-movie with Robert Stack called Bwana Devil proved a surprise hit. Eventually, the studios followed suit: M-G-M released Kiss Me, Kate, Warner Bros. remade House of Wax with Vincent Price, and Universal unleashed Creature from the Black Lagoon. These films were hits, but not every one of them was successful.
It went away because its advent also coincided with the development of widescreen and stereo, so movie theaters invested in that instead; CinemaScope advertisements called it “the modern miracle you see without glasses.” Widescreen movies thrived while 3D flops started to outnumber the hits. The polarized silver screen produced a stunning image, but it required two film projectors running at once, which was impractical before the invention of the film platter. 3D became a novelty limited to still photography until the 1980s gave it a new lease on life.
The 3D revival of the 1980s and 1990s used the red-and-blue anaglyph system, which required less retrofitting for then-modern film projectors, but most of the films released this way, including Jaws 3D, Comin’ At Ya!, Friday the 13th: Part 3D, and Amityville 3D: The Demon, were flops dismissed mainly as cheesy gimmick movies or cynically lazy sequels. This revival came with attempts to make anaglyph 3D broadcasts over TV, which ranged from a Diet Coke commercial to an episode of Married with Children, but it still did not take.
That changed in the 21st century when HDTV and digital cinema projection combined with the old polarized silver screens made 3D movies and TV practical again. This time, all the studios followed suit by trying to use 3D as an actual storytelling medium with such films as Avatar, Life of Pi, and Hugo. Even Disney, which had only made two short cartoons in the process in the 1950s before giving up on it, made huge sums of money on the 3D animated films Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen; Pixar’s films also started to be made available in 3D. This 3D revival was more successful than the last one because Blu-ray disc technology came with the capacity to view films this way with special glasses. Many audiences also disliked fake 3D where it was obvious the effects were generated in post-production.
Unfortunately, studios are starting to give it up again. Now that 4k UHD discs have brought movie theater quality picture and sound into the home in a convenient disc form for the first time ever, the future of 3D movies is unclear, even if the movies themselves have never looked clearer. IMAX recently announced it is discontinuing its 3D screenings, so this does not bode well for its future.