Imax May Be The Greatest Film Delivery System Ever Developed, But Will It Prosper?
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Decisions Facing the Industry In The Future
At present almost all 70mm releases run under 45 minutes in length so science museums can schedule shows hourly. (It takes the projectionist nearly 15 minutes to rewind the huge/heavy reel of film and rethread the projector.) What will happen if the public wants longer shows with greater entertainment values? Production costs will certainly go up. Will the public like longer shows if they are produced? At the present time PDI/DreamWorks say they never decided if the 70mm version of Shrek was going to be 45 minutes long or around 80 minutes in length (the Imax person said it was definitely going to be the longer length). One consideration is whether or not the audience will want to wear the 3D goggles for longer shows.

There are other decisions facing the Imax industry including whether or not to produce mainly novelty films that do little more than show off the medium’s potential (like Cyberworld), or produce films with real content. There is reason to believe that theaters are reluctant to invest in films noted for content at the present time.

Petrov's daunting task of filling 70mm of celluloid was as much a challenge as the fictional old man's four-day battle with the marlin. © Pascal Blais Productions Inc., Imagica Corp., Panorama Film Studio of Yaroslavl.

A film with emotional and intellectual content is the Oscar winning Old Man and the Sea. It is being distributed by its producer, Pascal Blais, with Hemingway, A Portrait (winner of the Canadian Oscar for Best Documentary). The 40-minute program has only played in Montreal, Paris and a few other cities. Imax films are normally purchased or leased by theaters/theater chains rather than rented from a distributor. Prints are extremely expensive and I suspect the reason it hasn’t been seen in theaters in this country is that most film bookers are afraid Hemingway will not have as much draw as Siegfried and Roy, a documentary on Mt. Everest or a film on dinosaurs.

Imax animation is a new art form and in the right hands it can become a great one. When Alexander Petrov came to the Bay Area before the Oscar ceremony, he talked about the problems he had animating for the giant screen. Before he saw his animation on an Imax screen for the first time he was afraid his paintings would look awful. He said, "When I saw the enlarged images in the Imax projection room, I was completely surprised. It is as if my little image had grown. It is…gigantic like a Michelangelo fresco. I am no Michelangelo, but when I see what has become of the small image I have drawn, I say whoa…It is something I could not have imagined." (quote is from

The "Pines of Rome" segment combines CG whales and water surfaces with traditionally animated water, backgrounds and other effects elements. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the future people’s viewing habits will change. Wall sized digital systems will probably take away a lot of the 35mm theatrical business. On the other hand the 70mm experience is something that cannot be duplicated at home. There may come a day when these expensive films and projection systems become a major form of entertainment for people wanting to go to the movies. Now, if only they can ride out the tumultuous times ahead, until that day arrives.

Note: The Imax Corporation is also developing other types of products. They are working with large projection systems for digital information. Apparently the Imax ride equipment used in Vegas hotels and elsewhere uses their projectors, but Imax says the rides are not part of their present business.

Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.


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