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?
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.
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:
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:
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:
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