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DV101 Blog — The Outrage of LIeMAX

Column - DV101 Header 

I'm a little angry, so bear with me.

For the past three or four years, I've been saying "It's the
1950s all over again" with regards to the trends in theatrical motion
pictures. In the 1950s, as televisions began to pop up in the average American
household, theater attendance began to drop and the film industry began to
panic. The general presumption was that "home entertainment" (a term that
really wouldn’t be coined for 30 or 40 years, but I'll borrow it here) would be
the death of the theatrical film as they knew it. Suddenly new and exciting
filmgoing experiences began to crop up from Smell-O-Vision to 3D to stereophonic sound and CinemaScope widescreen. Theater owners and studios were
doing anything and everything they could to make the theatergoing experience
different; more exciting and more enticing to the audiences so they would
abandon their little boxes at home and go to the movies.

After the shakedown, and the realization that television was
not going to be the death of the
movies, what survived were stereo sound and the widescreen (CinemaScope, for
all intents and purposes) format.

Fast forward to the 2000s. HDTV has reared its
high-resolution head in the home and 16:9 television sets are now starting to
overtake 4:3 sets in American homes. The theatrical industry is, once again,
running scared. What happens? We start to see more and more "gimmicks," just
like in the 1950s. Notice the trend toward 3D movies? Seem familiar? Notice the
trend toward IMAX releases of big blockbuster films? How about 3D IMAX – now there's a gimmick! Not only is the image
larger than life and crystal clear, now it's also larger than life, crystal clear and IN YOUR FACE! Take that, HDTV!

I'll talk about 3D another day, but for today I'd like to
discuss IMAX.

Recently, I authored a story on the IMAX sequences for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for American Cinematographer magazine and I
was a little frustrated at what I learned while researching the story. As I was
trying to denote the aspect ratio of the IMAX screen (which I mistakenly
thought was 1.34:1 based on the dimensions of the actual negative area) I found
a discrepancy that didn't seem to make any sense. Some sources were putting the
aspect ratio at 1.43:1, which seemed right, and some were putting it at 1.9:1!
That just can't be right! Those two are way
off! It's not like someone is getting 2.40:1 wrong by calling it 2.35:1. This
is a major discrepancy... What the heck is going on?

 DV101-LieMax4

Unfortunately, it is not wrong. BOTH are true. It seems that
there's a new trend to put "IMAX" into more multiplexes by
introducing a digital version that is
a supreme compromise. Angry members of the interwebs Blogosphere have dubbed
this "LIeMAX," and I tend to wholeheartedly agree. That's exactly what it is –
one big lie.

For those that don't know, IMAX is the largest motion
picture format ever used. Standard motion pictures are photographed and
projected on 35mm film. 35mm film has an image size of, at its maximum,
.735" x .980" or an overall image area of .72" square.

35mm film runs vertically, meaning the film runs up and down
and the frames are stacked on top of each other. IMAX is a 15-70 format. That
means 70mm film that is 15 perforations wide. The IMAX format runs
horizontally, with the frames side-by-side. The IMAX frame is 2.072" x
2.772" that's an overall film area of 5.74" square. That's 8 times
the size of 35mm film frame.

 DV101-LieMax5

In addition to the considerably larger film frame – which
provides more resolution and more image information for more overall image
detail – the IMAX format requires a special venue. The screens are
approximately 75-100 feet tall, as compared to the average 20-30 feet tall of a
normal theatrical screen. The IMAX experience is, indeed, an experience in and
of itself – unlike any other theatrical experience. That's what makes it stand
out and makes it "special."

Basically what is happening now is the IMAX Corporation,
under the direction of CEO Richard Gelfond, has decided to expand IMAX into
every multiplex and is offering a considerably compromised version to fit into
standard multiplex screens. This means not only are the screens considerably
smaller and in a different aspect ratio, but the projection is NOT 15-70mm
film; it's two digital projectors.

Let's start with the screen size.

As James Hyder, editor and publisher for LFExaminer, the
Independent Journal of the Large Format Motion Picture Industry
(http://www.lfexaminer.com), demonstrates on his Blog (http://www.lfexaminer.com/20081016.htm)
the difference in screen size between New York City's Lincoln Center IMAX
theater (a genuine IMAX facility) and the new AMC Empire 25:

 DV101-LieMax6

BOTH of these venues are being presented as
"IMAX," yet there is a substantial
difference between the two screens. Not only is there a substantial difference,
but the ticket prices are still the same.
You're paying a $5 premium at your local multiplex for "IMAX." In my
case, when I went to see Harry Potter and
the Half Blood Prince IMAX 3D Experience
(that was the literal title for
that screening) at the AMC Century City in California, I paid $17 for my
ticket.

What is IMAX's response to this? In September of 2008,
co-CEO Richard Gelfond told the members of the Giant Screen Cinema Association
"we don't think of [IMAX] as the giant screen..."

Strange. That's really the whole idea, Richard. He goes on
to say, rather, "it is the best immersive experience on the planet."

So, in essence, he's saying "we want to get IMAX out there
as much as possible and make more money so we're going to just throw the name
up rather willy-nilly and fool audiences into thinking they're getting IMAX and
steal their money!" [Note, that is my interpretation of his statement, not a
direct quote.]

Further, the real
aspect of IMAX is the 15-70mm film. That's what separates it out from any other
format. We have digital projection, 4K digital projection, 35mm spherical and
35mm anamorphic, and we even  have
65mm (70mm) and 8-perf 70mm (Omnimax). IMAX is the only 15-70mm format out there
– and that's what the name represents. But in these new multiplex cinemas, it's
not even film – it's dual digital projectors which, together, barely equal a 4K
projector. Digital may be superior in a lot of aspects, but it certainly IS NOT
when it compares to 15-70mm film projection.

Some may argue that the trend of presenting Hollywood
blockbuster movies, shot in other formats, on IMAX screens (which requires them
to only utilize a portion of the IMAX screen, much like letterboxing) has led
to the multiplex trend of smaller screens, to "better" accommodate the CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.40:1. However, this isn't even true as the
smaller IMAX screens are a 1.9:1 aspect ratio – so the standard 2.40:1
"epic" aspect ratio requires even further "letterboxing" on
these smaller screens:

DV101-LieMax3

And what about the movies like Transformers and Dark Knight,
who actually shot IMAX for select sequences? How are THOSE films shown on these
compromised screens? Cropped is how they're shown. What the heck is the point
of that?

I'll grant that these IMAX multiplex screens are slightly larger than the standard screen
and the dual digital projection is slightly
larger and sharper than standard digital projection (though not matched by
Sony's 4K SXRD digital projection), but they're selling a false concept. These
theaters need to be branded as "IMAX Digital" or "IMAX Multiplex
Premium" or something that
distinguishes them from the real
deal.

As Hyder states on his Blog, Gelfond has a response to this,
also. "Gelfond explained that the company feared an "IMAX Digital" brand
might cast the older film-based theaters as "second-class citizens" in the
public’s mind, since "digital" generally has connotations of "newer," and "cooler." Although that's an interesting thought, it's a cop-out and
he's not recognizing the damage that mis-branding is going to do for the real
theaters. If you bought a $200,000 Ferrari and then found out the interior was
really pleather and the engine was actually from a 2009 Toyota Corolla, you'd
be pissed, wouldn't you? It could still be a really nice car – but it's not what you thought you were buying. 

There is some hope
on the horizon for truth in advertising. On May 26, 2009, IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/news/ni0799996)
ran a story stating that Gelfond has "asked a Hollywood market-research firm
to determine how serious an issue the matter is" referring to the false
advertising of the IMAX name for sup-par theaters. Gelfond told Los Angeles Times
columnist Patrick Goldstein that the study will determine "Is it just a
few bloggers or is there really a bigger adverse audience reaction?"

No, Mr. Gelfond. It's not just a few bloggers – it's anyone
who cares about the integrity of the motion picture experience.

The article goes on, "Asked by Goldstein why the
company doesn't simply put up a sign outside IMAX theaters specifying the size
of the screen, Gelfond responded, 'We're thinking about doing that kind of
thing,' then said more emphatically later, 'We're going to do something about
disclosing information. Period. The market-research survey is really just to
help figure out what to do, not if we should do something.'"

I should certainly hope so. Until then, AMC and Regal
theaters seem to be two of the biggest adopters (offenders, ahem) of the
sub-par IMAX experience. If you're contemplating seeing a new film in IMAX and
the screen is at one of these chains' theaters, be very, very wary. Generally,
you're safest looking for a stand-alone IMAX screen at a science center near
you. Destroyfakeimax.com is a blog that features a wiki map indicating real and
fake IMAX theaters around the US. Anyone can contribute or look up your local
theaters and see the truth.

In 2002, I wrote an article for The Hollywood Reporter on the rise of Giant Screen cinema and the
expansion of the IMAX theaters. At that time, Disney had re-released Fantasia 2000 as an "IMAX
Experience" – one of the few test-case full-length feature films to be
released on the large screen.

For that article, "Giant Leaps Forward" (May 15,
2000), Andrew Gellis, senior VP for IMAX told me, "I don't think large
format wants to be just like feature films. It would rather maintain its
distinction from traditional Hollywood features, because if it becomes just
another venue for playing feature films, then [all it would be] is Hollywood on
a bigger screen and there would be nothing different or truly special about
it." He couldn't have been more right. In the current incarnation in
multiplexes, IMAX is nothing more than slightly
bigger Hollywood.

Gellis also explained, "It took IMAX 20 years to build
the first 100 theaters, it took five years to build the second 100 theaters
and, more than likely, we'll reach 300 theaters worldwide within the next two
or three years."

With that in mind, it's no wonder that the company is
turning to desperate measures by highly compromising their quality to expand
the IMAX brand into more and more theaters – but offer the truth. IMAXLite
might be a better way to brand the new multiplex theaters.

For more reading on the LIeMAX situation, try:

Destroy Fake Imax

Roger Ebert's Blog

Ain't it Cool News

MaryAnn Johnson film.com

Aziz Ansari's Blog

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