I'm a lifelong member of the KISS Army. Yes, I've been a fan of the band KISS for over 30 years. I'm also a reasonable enough person to realize that my favorite band when I was four has little relevance today, at least not in the way that most contemporary popular acts do. What remains, though, is their influence, not just on music, but on pop culture as well (I realize some will doubt or deny that latter point, but KISS is an early example of how masses of people relate to spectacle and phenomenon, in other words pop culture brand loyalty. Gene Simmons is the original Steve Jobs).
So let's take a look at the evolution of KISS. They certainly started out as a mostly style-over-substance gimmick. Sorry guys, I love "Kiss," "Dressed to Kill," and "Rock and Roll Over," but those albums wouldn't have made KISS the sensation they were without the makeup and theatrics. But that gimmick lured people in and the band delivered with awesome stage shows - not just in terms of spectacle but musical performance as well (their "Alive" albums, live music with no visuals, sold like crazy). Over time their songwriting and musicianship blossomed. Eventually they began to fall apart, reinvented themselves, held on, and became legends. They also gradually descended, as I said, into a state of contemporary cultural irrelevance. A lot of people still love them out of nostalgia. Others, like myself, truly continue to relate to most of their catalog, even their latter releases.
So when I hear people decrying stereoscopic 3D as a motion picture gimmick, I can't help but think of KISS. Despite even the sincerest efforts at using 3D artfully - and I believe "Avatar" was such an effort - stereo, especially involving live-action, can't help but be gimmicky. It draws attention to itself that unintentionally undermines the integrity of the film as art. The effect is less so in animated subjects because of the necessary suspension of disbelief in an already unrealistic appearance, and I think studios have been very savvy in using animated features as a tool to acclimate the public to 3D.
3D is probably part of the future cinematic landscape and no amount of bemoaning that will make it not so. The people I hear complain most about stereo are people who love movies. But the future of cinema depends much less on the people who love cinema than on those who like movies.
So what can we do? Much like KISS did, once the gimmick has put butts in the seats, we need to deliver. Give them something more significant than the gimmick they paid for, because they're going to buy intoSave & Close the gimmick anyway. How seriously take their cinema experience, how much they appreciate it, will continue to depend on us. Only once the audiences realize that there's something behind the gimmick can we move on, mature the application of the technology, grow as movie makers, and allow the earnest evolution of this craft.
Of course I don't believe that stereo will entirely outgrow its legacy of self-aware, self-showcasing spectacle. Gimmicky 3D will always exist in some form and that's fine. Punch and Judy shows existed fine beside Shakespeare, Scrubs inhabited the same genre as ER. One does not belittle the other. The existence of in-your-face, campy stereo 3D does not render the artistic use of 3D impossible. I think, rather, that the proliferation of over-the-top 3D makes a more reserved, thoughtful, and crafty application of it more desirable.
A gimmick is not so bad if it is a stepping stone to something better that hopefully outlasts the gimmick itself.