The big picture

IMAX theaters are branching out from museums to the multiplexes

December 09, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

The IMAX experience, long associated with huge movie screens in specially constructed theaters usually attached to museums, is coming to a multiplex near you.

Theaters in White Marsh and Columbia already are offering films in IMAX, part of an agreement between the Canadian-based film company responsible for the technology and the AMC theater chain to install digital-projection IMAX on 100 screens in 33 U.S. markets through 2010. So far, 25 screens have been installed.

Columbia's, in July, was among the first. White Marsh's was added in September. Beginning Friday, both will be playing the heavily promoted remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a cautionary tale of humanity's indifference to its surroundings starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and a robot named Gort.

While the newer IMAX screens don't have the same huge proportions as the 50-foot-high behemoths at attractions such as the Maryland Science Center, company officials insist the experience is similar in more important ways. IMAX isn't simply a matter of size, they stress, but of picture and sound quality.

"It's about the relationship of the audience to the screen," says Larry O'Reilly, IMAX's executive vice president of theater development, who last week helped launch a similar expansion in Europe. "We want them to feel like they're actually part of the action, with crystal-clear images that fool your brain into thinking it's actually real ... and a digital sound system that makes you feel like you're in the middle of the action audibly, as well."

Audiences seem to appreciate the differences.

"The visual experience of it is great," said Amy Devadas of Columbia, who took her young daughters Lily and Ivy to Columbia for an IMAX screening of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa on Saturday afternoon. "You can see things more clearly."

Traditional IMAX theaters, like the one at the Inner Harbor's science center, use projectors equipped to handle 70mm film, twice the size of the film used in most theaters. It's the jumbo film size that allows movies shot in IMAX to be projected on such large screens without any loss of image quality.

But the size was also limiting. It was one of the reasons that specialized buildings often were needed; most theaters didn't have projection facilities big enough to handle the oversize film, not to mention the pumped-up sound. Also, the bulky cameras needed to shoot films in IMAX kept them from being used for most Hollywood films. For years, IMAX was reserved for nature and science documentaries, as well as the occasional concert film.

That has changed, however, with the increasing popularity of digital projection, which eliminates the need for film. Although smaller than traditional IMAX screens, those being installed at AMC theaters are about 25 percent bigger than normal. They're also curved, to increase the audience's sense of being immersed in the film. The film also projects about 80 percent brighter than in regular theaters, allowing for brighter colors and higher contrast.

"The screen was really, really good," said David Reuter, who brought his 7-year-old son, Matthew, to the Columbia IMAX on Saturday. "It was really clear."

Bringing a screen and projector up to IMAX standards costs about $150,000, O'Reilly says. Under the agreement with AMC, IMAX provides the equipment while the theaters pick up the cost of installation. The two companies then share the profits.

"For us, it offers another option for our guests," says AMC spokesman Justin Scott, "this incredible immersive experience that only IMAX can offer."

It also offers another inducement in the continuing effort by theater operators to pull audiences away from their TV screens and into movie houses. From offering movies in 3-D to building huge multiplexes on the outskirts of big cities, with everything from stadium seating to gourmet food, exhibitors have spent generations devising new ways of filling their seats. Even the most high-tech home theater, with the biggest plasma screen and the most advanced sound system, can't match the glory of the IMAX experience, exhibitors are gambling.

So far, the gamble seems to be paying off. AMC reports that, even before the digital agreement was struck, it had seven screens equipped for film-projection IMAX. Last December, when the film Beowulf was released, it did an average of 14 times more business on IMAX than on conventional screens.

The Hollywood studios, too, are taking notice. Several films, although shot conventionally, have been adapted for IMAX projection, including Night in the Museum and Kung-Fu Panda. Several parts of The Dark Knight were shot using IMAX cameras; audiences could tell because the dimensions of the movie would change when those scenes came on screen.

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