When Tron: Legacy opened last December, critics dismissed it as hollow eye candy or another forgettable Hollywood foray into the world of 3D. The film scored a big opening weekend, then promptly faded from screens and relevance. Unlike the groundbreaking 1982 original, the new Tron failed to leave any lasting impression on the future of the movie industry.
Unless you count what happened inside Missoula's Carmike 10 on Reserve Street. That's where Hank Green, during an otherwise uneventful screening of the film, hatched a simple idea that could change how millions of people watch 3D movies.
Green is the founder of 2D Glasses, a Missoula-based company that sells shades designed to take the third dimension out of 3D movies. The paradoxical product caters to an estimated 10 percent of Americans—including Green's wife, Katherine—who can't watch 3D without suffering from headaches, dizziness, nausea, or other discomforts.
"I basically didn't want to stop seeing 3D movies with Katherine, or start going to the movies alone," says Green. "Plus, it was so easy to fix."
Green's solution essentially cancels out Hollywood's visual trick. When a person watches a 3D movie, a projector beams two images onto the screen, creating a blurry mess. Standard 3D glasses use one lens to block one image and the other lens to block the other image. The combined effect confuses viewers to create the illusion of depth.
Green figured if he could block the same image through both lenses, it'd result in a normal 2D image. After Tron, he took the left lens from his 3D glasses and replaced it with the right lens from Katherine's pair. The fragile, sloppily built creation worked perfectly. Green thought nothing of it until friends found out and asked if he'd make them a pair.
"And I'm like, 'Well, you can make your own pair.' It's not that hard," he says. "And then, after the third person asked me, I realized, 'Wait. How much would you pay for a pair?' They said ten bucks, and I thought I could make that work."
Green launched 2D Glasses in April. The professionally manufactured glasses sell for $7.99 through 2D-glasses.com (the company's website), Amazon, and ThinkGeek.com, an online store that actually mocked the idea of "De-3D Cinema Glasses" in an April Fool's Day story. The joke speaks to how silly the idea sounds, but it also taps into a growing number of annoyed moviegoers and film critics who want 3D to disappear.
"The amount of press has been unbelievable," says Green, who rattles off a list of coverage that includes NPR's "Morning Edition," CNN International, Forbes, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and a number of popular tech blogs. "Everyone recognizes that 3D is a big deal, but that it also causes real problems for a lot of people."
The most exciting boost came when Roger Ebert sent out a tweet touting Green's invention. The virtual thumbs-up from America's seminal film critic and one of 3D's most outspoken detractors created a bump in publicity and reinforced Green's belief in the idea.
"Someone wrote to me and said something about it being a niche product," says Green, who's already sold 2,000 units. "I don't get that. I wrote back and said, well, if it's for 10 percent of America, it's not really a niche product. You don't know the definition of niche. There's still a lot of room for this to grow."
Not everyone, however, is quick to share Green's optimism. Richard Taylor, complex manager at the Carmike 10, says he hasn't fielded any complaints from patrons about 3D headaches. He suspects part of the reason is that the Carmike 10 offers many of its 3D movies in 2D as well.
In fact, according to the Hollywood Reporter, when given the choice, moviegoers are making their preference known. Earlier this summer, 60 percent more people chose to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 2D rather than 3D. The same thing happened again with last week's release of Kung Fu Panda 2.
"It's sort of a double-edged thing," says Taylor. "On one hand, I can't imagine people going out of their way to pay for a different pair of glasses when you can just see the same movie at the same time in 2D. Then again, if your friends are going to see it in 3D, you may want to go. I guess there's an opportunity to help those people, but it seems limited."
Green has a history of turning long-shot ideas into successes. In 2007, he and his brother started "Brotherhood 2.0," a funny, fast-paced video blog that documents their daily lives. What started as a creative way for the two to stay in touch turned into a YouTube phenomenon. Their videos have now been viewed more than 140 million times and their "Vlogbrothers" channel is listed among YouTube's top 50.
Green parlayed the success of Vlogbrothers into other online enterprises, including a record label that caters to other internet celebrities. Green also records his own music and tours; his third studio CD comes out soon. Next month he'll host the second annual VidCon, a conference in Los Angeles for other video bloggers that has 2,400 registered attendees. He also oversees EcoGeek.com, an environmental technology website he created while studying in the University of Montana's environmental studies program.
For all the recent attention, Green says 2D Glasses actually take up a fraction of his time. But he's hoping that will change.
"This is a whole different game than I'm used to," he says. "I'm used to selling to my audience, and at the end I have maybe one box of CDs left and that's it. With this, it's been more gradual. The publicity has been great, but now I need it to translate into sales."