China’s ‘Dune’ Fans Resist 3D Imax Edition, But Haven’t Yet Won the Battle for 2D

·6 min read

The initial excitement and relief among Chinese fans that “Dune” passed government censorship was soon tempered by outrage that the initial release plan didn’t include an Imax 2D version of Denis Villeneuve’s keenly anticipated sci-fi thriller.

Hundreds flooded the comments section of Imax’s official Weibo and online message boards last month to vent their frustration, while a few dozen took part in an email campaign to the company.

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Some said that if there was no Imax 2D they’d be sure to pirate the film instead. Others called for boycotts. It was unfair, fans said, for Chinese viewers to have fewer format choices than consumers in almost any other market and be involuntarily funneled into 3D screenings.

“Over the years, we’ve been given only 3D for too long. We’re fed up. We just want to watch ‘Dune’ in Imax 2D!” read one popular Weibo missive, as crusading fans circulated pro-2D online posters and GIFs last week in the run-up to “Dune’s” Friday opening. (The film grossed $22 million over its opening weekend in China.)

Variety has confirmed that although producer and China distributor Legendary Entertainment didn’t initially submit an Imax 2D version for approval, one was indeed available for Friday’s opening day.

Foreign film importer China Film reached out to Legendary, the producer and China distributor of “Dune,” to offer the chance to fast-track an Imax 2D format through approvals, said a source with knowledge of the matter, who called the move “very unusual.” (China Film gets a 43% cut of revenue-sharing films as the official distributor.)

Studios themselves, not Imax nor the censorship bureau, decide which formats are submitted for Chinese censorship review, and there’s no official limit on the number of formats submitted. However, companies may have reason not to submit every available version: Sending in fewer formats may streamline the opaque review process, while re-submitting more formats after the fact could jeopardize the all-important China release date. Crucially, leaving out Imax 2D locks consumers into buying premium 3D tickets, which can boost box office by as much as 20%-30%.

An Expensive ‘Pot of Porridge’

While 3D demand remains strong in Russia and is notable in countries like Brazil, Germany and Canada, the global trend is towards the re-introduction of 2D in strong 3D markets — even when it can be hard to discern whether there is merely a vocal minority calling for it or a real sea-change in taste.

China is the world’s biggest 3D market, and the only one where films regularly release solely in Imax 3D, with no Imax 2D option. Nevertheless, viewers have been consistently angry about the higher-tech format for nearly a decade.

The basic complaints are universal: the format leaves people dizzy, the glasses dim the image, the effects are distracting and unnecessary, and the tickets are too expensive.

More locally, some movie theaters make viewers buy their own 3D glasses, an extra expense that’s grown more common during the pandemic. Many Chinese cinemas also set their projectors dimmer for 3D movies to save money.

This has become the major sticking point for those now lobbying cinemas to schedule 2D screenings, with fans circulating GIFs and photos of what are described as 3D and 2D versions of the same moments from “Dune” side by side, with the 3D version notably darker.

“Four times brighter picture than 3D, even sharper picture quality, and minute detail are best seen via Imax 2D,” one poster reads, facetiously mimicking marketing language.

Another campaign took a different tack: “When even just 2K resolution action scenes are blurred like a pot of porridge, you’ll only be seeing handsome [star Timothée Chalamet]’s clean pores in your dreams.”

An Imax representative said there’s no difference in image quality between Imax 2D and 3D, but admitted that it can be hard to see some detail in 3D films with a dark canvas, particularly given the filtering effect of the glasses.

How 3D Exploded in China

The rise of 3D in China dates back to the huge successes of 2009’s “Avatar” and 2012’s re-release of “Titanic,” which clued Hollywood in to the huge local appetite for the format.

The country became uniquely dominated by 3D after the 2012 U.S.-China bilateral film agreement, which opened the Middle Kingdom’s door to 14 more revenue-sharing studio films a year beyond the existing 20-film quota, so long as those titles were in premium 3D or Imax formats. Studios began to convert films to 3D just for China so as to take advantage of the policy and save their regular quota for other blockbusters, all while earning greater box office returns.

As a new influx of 3D Hollywood films flooded the market, the total box office share of local films dropped drastically to just some 30% in the first half of 2012. This prompted Chinese authorities to issue new policies offering monetary rewards to local films made in 3D or giant screen formats able to hit certain box office figures, leading to a growing stream of local 3D fare.

Local viewers grumbled about Hollywood films specifically converted to 3D for China with key examples including “Transcendence,” “2012” and “Fast & Furious 7,” but backlash reached fever pitch for 2016’s “Jason Bourne,” whose conversion left audiences so dizzied by its shaky camerawork and rapid cuts that Universal Pictures had to issue a public apology for the decision.

“It’s a pity we don’t know the name of whoever decided to convert this film into 3D, the bastard!” film critic Zhang Xiaobei wrote at the time in a viral comment. “Don’t you just want our money? Why can’t you let us watch a movie in peace even when we give it to you?”

Both Imax 2D and Imax 3D versions of James Bond film “No Time to Die” were submitted to Chinese authorities, Variety confirmed. It releases Oct. 29.

Chinese “Dune” acolytes are particularly up in arms about the big-budget adaptation because director Villeneuve has expressly said he intended the film to be viewed in Imax 2D, calling 3D “a gadget” in a Harper’s Bazaar interview last month.

Villeneuve’s cinematographer Roger Deakins also said in 2017 that he preferred the standard 2D widescreen version for “Blade Runner 2049,” since some 3D viewing systems made the image “lack saturation as well as density … making it a compromise in terms of image quality wherever you are seated.”

It’s no surprise, then, that fans were scandalized that year when no Imax 2D version was imported and only eight theaters nationwide chose to screen the film in regular 2D on opening day, leaving viewers stuck watching the darkly hued, three-hour-long feature behind dizzying 3D glasses. A state TV channel run by China Film said the circumstances led to depressed sales.

Even with the Imax 2D of “Dune” available in China, and an apparent groundswell of demand, it remains to be seen how many profit-starved exhibitors crippled by the pandemic and dismal summer sales will ultimately decide to program the format.

But the important thing, fans say, is having that choice.

“Please give us back our right to watch 2D films!” one critic wrote. “Let’s have 3D serve the movies, not the movies serving 3D.”

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