In 1983, Universal set up a billboard for Jaws 3D in Studio City, CA, with a big, cement shark exploding out of the ad. Problem was, the shark head was so heavy, it fell from the billboard, and smashed a parked car on the street.
I was reminded of this story in Just When You Thought It Was Safe, a great book about Jaws, and looking back on it, it was definitely an omen. The summer of 1983 was the peak of the last 3D revival, which lasted about two years. All things considered, the current 3D revival has lasted about as long. (And without a major game changer like Avatar, it's doubtful it would have lasted long at all.)
Like any self-respecting film geek, I read all the pertinent literature of the time, like Cinefex, Fangoria, Starlog, and Cinefantastique dedicated a special double issue to 3D for their September 1983 issue. Looking through it again, it can tell you a lot about why 3D didn't cut it the last time around.
The issue included an article called "Getting the Most Out of 3D" (avoid balconies or sitting at extreme angles away from the screen, make sure it's a silver screen instead of a white screen), as well as the article, "Why Most 3D Films Are So Bad." And indeed, the 3D movies of the time left a lot to be desired, including the aforementioned Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D, Spacehunter, Metalstorm, and The Man Who Wasn't There.
Not to mention, the technology wasn't there either, and it was reported that shooting in 70mm, which of course shot with a wider screen width: "Wider film means a bigger negative for sharper, clearer images, and wider film means more light reaching the screen for a brighter picture."
The '80's 3D revival was started by a low budget schlocker, Comin' At Ya!, which was primarily an excuse to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the audience.
Made by a former Xerox salesman, Comin' at Ya cost $1 million, and made $5 million back. There was also a follow up, Treasure of the Four Crowns, a schlocky rip-off of Raiders, that made $10 million at the box office. Then the majors really jumped on the bandwagon when Paramount released Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D, which made big moohlah at the box office.
Don't forget, there was also 3D TV then, thanks to Elvira, who ran the old horror film The Mad Magician, starring Vincent Price, and you bought the glasses at your local 7-11.
Several years ago I wrote about 3D right as the current boom was getting launched and one source told me, "We've seen at least two or three prior attempts to convince audiences that this novelty format is the 'wave of the future,' so you'll have to excuse me if I remain a skeptic. I've certainly noticed the advances in 3-D technology, but I'm not the type of viewer who necessarily wants to be 'immersed' in a motion picture, and I don't feel that any form of technical razzle-dazzle is a substitute for a solid script, a good cast, artful cinematography, and so on."
The source also added, "I can assure you that more than a few artists in the industry agree with me on these issues, but are loath to speak out for fear of alienating the big manufacturers, who obviously have a clear stake in selling the hype."
And hitting it right on the head, a executive for one theater chain told Portfolio magazine several years ago, "3-D is a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the magic bullet."