Why Avatar's big screen success couldn't save 3D TV

Avatar - back in the old days
Avatar - back in the old days

Looking back, it's fair to suggest that Avatar's claim to have kickstart the 3D revolution is applicable to the big screen theaters and cinemas, but not so much for television.

The news that James Cameron is going to make four Avatar sequels to his jaw-droppingly beautiful original, and that he is expecting his films to be a significant technological jump, is both a moment to revel in what is to come and to look back and admit that Avatar proved to be a false dawn for 3D TV.

That's not to say that Avatar wasn't a startling success. Cameron's film remains the movie with the biggest box-office take, and it's harder and harder to watch a major film in just the two dimensions these days if you are venturing out for an evening of popcorn and the silver screen.


But, in a time when manufacturers are taking 3D capabilities away from their sets, the reality is that it's just never captured the attention of this generation of consumers. If anything, it has been something of a millstone around TV manufacturers' necks as they try to convince us that the (much less gimmicky) brilliance of 4K or HDR is worth upgrading for.

The future of viewing

Cameron's Avatar was at the forefront of a generation of films built for 3D that briefly convinced the world that this was the future of viewing. It created a Steve Jobs-esque reality distortion that made us forget about the cumbersome glasses, the limiting factors of a small screen, compared to the joy of an IMAX, and the cost of an upgrade to our kit that would become a curate's egg of a feature.

The head honcho at Sky Movies, Ian Lewis told me, almost five years ago, that he felt that Avatar was the moment that proved 3D had legs.

"Avatar is, by a million miles, top of the tree," he asserted. "Avatar blew me away and for me it is a defining moment for 3D, up there with the moment that the ships flies over at the beginning of Star Wars or when Sam Neill turns around in Jurassic Park to see a dinosaur."

Avatar - eye

But, although the first glimpse of that starship or that dinosaur on your television screen might not have had the same impact as on the big screen, seeing Avatar on a television showcased exactly why 3D was not the silver bullet the TV industry wanted it to be.

Avatar on a television was diminished, muted and - without its impactful all-encompassing big-screen 3D focus - inevitably drifted to its hackneyed storyline.

If that sounds over-critical of Avatar it isn't really meant to be, it's just that 3D was an inherent part of the experience.

And, as UK Gizmodo editor Gerald Lynch pointed out after this article was first published, it wasn't helped by being made exclusive to a Blu-ray 3D player, limiting its availability to the wider audience.

It's interesting to read our original thoughts on Avatar, after an invite to the opening 15 minutes. At the time I wrote; "I certainly feel excited about seeing Avatar in 3D, although I'm still not convinced that this will burst through the notion that 3D is a neat trick rather than the future of cinema."

You can make a cogent argument that 3D's failure on television has been beneficial to movie theaters. That thousands of us flock to watch the latest blockbusters because of an experience that definitely embraces 3D.

When James Cameron starts actually finishing his sequels rather than adding new ones to the end, it's going to be fascinating to see if this is a new dawn for television 3D, or just a continuance of cinema as the best place for the experience.

Perhaps Pandora - the world he created - will become so utterly mesmerising that it will create a new reality distortion, or perhaps more likely it will encourage us to head to the nearest multiplex.

Patrick Goss

Patrick Goss is the ex-Editor in Chief of TechRadar. Patrick was a passionate and experienced journalist, and he has been lucky enough to work on some of the finest online properties on the planet, building audiences everywhere and establishing himself at the forefront of digital content.  After a long stint as the boss at TechRadar, Patrick has now moved on to a role with Apple, where he is the Managing Editor for the App Store in the UK.