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Upping the Experience: The Skinny on IMAX

IMAX is incorporating more and more entertainment only fare to their distribution slate. Not only are the results good for their bottom line but also for adding even more "event" to already special films.

IMAX is getting frivolous! Gone are the days of education only programming, with such releases as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Digital work by Industrial Light & Magic.

IMAX is getting frivolous! Gone are the days of education only programming, with such releases as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved. Digital work by Industrial Light & Magic.

To call IMAXs state of the art 70mm projection system The IMAX Experience sounds a bit presumptuous, but when it comes down to it, the facts dont lie. These days a trip to the local multiplex leaves me disoriented and puzzled. Having to negotiate an assaultive lobby lightshow and a food court worthy of any mall, Im often left wondering whether I came for a slice of pizza and a latte or for a movie. With IMAX, theres no mistaking the intent of the Experience. With screens up to 80 feet tall, uncompressed multi-speaker surround sound, and state of the art projection systems providing a more stable image, the IMAX presentation leaves you more with the impression of being in the movies than at the movies.

Education Only

These IMAX systems are impressive, but the question has always remained: why isnt there, alongside the immersive image and sound, a story you can really get into? Since their introduction in 1970, IMAX cinemas have primarily screened educational, fact-based documentaries of the science and nature variety. This is partly due to audience interest, as most of the early IMAX screens were located in museums and planetariums. But the choice of subject matter for IMAX productions had mostly been dependent on cost. The whole process, from shooting to screening, is cumbersome and just plain too expensive for narrative features. With so few screens to recoup expenses (225 in 30 countries) production costs must be kept down. While IMAX has had success with non-fiction films, what has given the 35mm format the upper hand is its narrative content. In an attempt to keep up with the Hollywood film industry, IMAX gradually introduced animated films into their programming -- a far cheaper alternative to costly live-action films.

Fantasia/2000 was IMAX's first big animated hit. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fantasia/2000 was IMAX's first big animated hit. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

While bits of animation had been featured in past IMAX films, it was the overwhelming success of Disneys Fantasia/2000 in IMAX theatres that showed that commercial animation could not only be popular, but extremely profitable on the (really) large screen. Opening in January 2000, the film made $50 million on a mere 75 screens in Canada and the U.S. and grossed $89.4 million worldwide. This success prompted deals with Vancouvers Mainframe Entertainment (to produce original CG films), PDI/Dreamworks (to re-release Shrek in 3D) and Disney (to re-release Beauty and the Beast). However, any potential growth was nipped in the bud; as the IMAX corporation struggled with layoffs and closures due to theatre chain bankruptcies (too many screens and too few crowds), decreased stock values and estimated losses for the near future. The Mainframe projects were postponed. The Shrek project was cancelled. IMAX's Commercial Theatre Strategy was put temporarily on hold.

The Other Side

In a last-ditch effort to attract audiences, the company decided in the spring of 2001 to increase revenue by canceling IMAX screenings and replacing them with current blockbusters like Tomb Raider and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. While the movies did not play in the full 70mm format, the enhanced sound and event-ness of the experience attracted larger crowds than regular IMAX films. But the biggest push of all came in mid-2002 when the company announced the release of their newest technology, IMAX DMR. DMR (short for digital re-mastering) allows for 35mm live-action films to be inexpensively transferred to 15/70 (15 perforation, 70mm) format. The proprietary technology mathematically analyzes and extracts important elements of each frame, eliminating the film grain (image graininess becomes apparent when blowing up a frame to twice its size) to render sharper images than in the original. The soundtrack is also extracted and enhanced in a similar manner. IMAX DMR premiered with the re-release of Ron Howards Apollo 13 in September 2002. Having overcome the biggest obstacle in releasing popular Hollywood films (i.e., the cost), the company was still testing out the waters with content that straddles the line between education and entertainment. For around five years, IMAX has been trying to marry the best of what Hollywood has to offer with IMAX quality images and sound, says Bradley J. Wechsler, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer of IMAX Corporation. "With Apollo 13, we accomplish that goal. Its visually stunning, historically relevant and accurate, and emotionally inspirational. In short, its the type of film that will not only play beautifully in the best IMAX commercial theatres around the world, it will also play in the best museums and science centers where a number of our theatres are as well.

Confident after the success of Apollo 13, the company ventured into fare that was less historically relevant and accurate and more frivolous. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones The IMAX Experience had its first showing at select IMAX theatres at midnight on Halloween 2002. Not only an historical event for many Star Wars fans, who spent weeks preparing what they called the biggest party of the year, for the biggest movie of the year, on the biggest screens, but also in terms of profitability. The film made $1.4 million on 58 screens in North America the first weekend, the highest per-screen average for the weekend and one of the biggest openings ever for an exclusive IMAX release. It also has the distinction of being the first digitally captured and created film to be converted to 70mm. IMAXs commitment to bringing entertaining films that would best suit the large screen and the success of Star Wars Episode II bodes well for future digitally created and vfx heavy films, especially considering that this release was the extended run of the movies initial May 2002 release.

A Revenue Breakthrough

Representatives at the IMAX Corporation state that the strong openings of its first two DMR releases and the increased level of signing activity show that momentum is building throughout the business. The anticipated losses for 2001 were smaller than originally predicted and the corporation is expecting a profit for this year. Subsequent to the end of the quarter, IMAX Corporation signed an agreement with Regal Entertainment Group, the largest motion picture exhibitor in the world, to install IMAX systems in 5 new cinemas. Regals decision to double the size of its network of large screens comes on the heels of the introduction of IMAX DMR. The Regal announcement hastens the growth of the Company, delivers tangible earnings to the Company in 2003 and, by all measures, is an important milestone in the pursuit of our goal of becoming a new release window for Hollywood films, said IMAX co-CEO Richard L. Gelfond. These strong results demonstrate that IMAX theatres are a new way for Hollywood to earn incremental returns...We continue to have discussions with virtually all of the Hollywood studios about bringing our first live-action day-and-date release to IMAX theatres in 2003.

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The Walt Disney Company has been the first and most high-profile adopter of IMAX's special form of distribution with hits like The Lion King being re-released and new films like Treasure Planet being released on IMAX and 35mm screens simultaneously. © Disney Enterprise, Inc. All rights reserved.

Indeed, since the release of the DMR technology, IMAX has joined in partnership with CAA (Creative Artists Agency) to secure live-action entertainment films for simultaneous release. The company may currently be focusing its efforts on live-action blockbusters, but it has not forgotten its past success with animated films. While animation is riding on the coattails of DMRs success, it is still breaking records and box offices alike. Long before DMR was released, the IMAX/Disney team were re-purposing films using their own digital production system. Disneys Beauty and the Beas t was the very first narrative feature to be released in large format. Instead of blowing the film up to 70mm format, each frame of the digital film was re-rendered at a higher resolution. After the huge success of Beauty and the Beast and with IMAXs recent advancements, plans were made to re-release a slew of Disney hits: the most recent being the The Lion King, which will be hitting IMAX screens this Christmas. Unlike Beauty and the Beast, which was re-released with a brand new musical number, The Lion King The IMAX Experience will not contain new footage. Several scenes, however, have been tweaked or enhanced to better suit the large screen. In the next three years Disney also plans to release Aladdin, Tarzan and The Little Mermaid in IMAX. And while live-action day-and-date releases are still in the planning stages, Disneys Treasure Planet has already become the first major studio feature to be released simultaneously in 35mm venues as well as IMAX theatres. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (the team behind such hits as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), the film should be an eleven year-old boys dream: combining the science-fiction world of robots and outer space with the swashbuckling fantasy adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. Unfortunately, the film fell into the trap of too much technique and not enough substance (or fun). As a result, it will also go down in the history books as the studio's first clear money-loser.

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Original Fare!

Animated films are also leading the way in the area of exclusive releases. Santa vs. the Snowman 3D, released November 2002 worldwide, is the first 3D animated holiday film made specifically for IMAX screens. IMAX had previously ventured into 3D (yes, you wear the 3D glasses) computer animation with Cyberworld, released in October 2000. While this film was successful, grossing $1.9 million in 3 weeks on 30 screens, it was not quite groundbreaking in the area of narrative storytelling. Featuring exerpts from PDIs Antz, the famous "Homer3D" segment from The Simpsons and other CG short films, all loosely linked with a cheesy story, the intent more than anything was to wow the audience with cool virtual worlds and the latest computer techniques. Fantasia/2000 was far less gimmicky, but still intended to impress with stunning sound and image rather than a fantastic story. Aware of the narrative shortcomings in many recent CG and IMAX films, the creators of Santa vs. the Snowman 3D set out to make a film that would amaze the eye, but also tell a good holiday story with a contemporary twist. Created by Steve Oedekerk and directed by John A. Davis (the Academy Award nominated team behind Jimmy Neutron), the film uses the unique properties of 3D and digital computer animation, along with the scale of the IMAX screen, to enhance the story. Oedekerk believes that the combination of the latest advances in animation and IMAX technology is a positive and momentous step in the future of storytelling. "Santa vs. the Snowman 3D captures the true holiday spirit, but with a comedic twist that I feel will keep adults as well as children entertained for years to come. Seeing the images in staggering size on the gigantic IMAX screen, in true 3D animation, brings narrative storytelling into a new dimension. The audience lives inside the film. Its really exciting, like watching what movies may be 50 years from now, a first step in redefining the experience of movie-going. To date, the film has grossed nearly $1.1 million on 25 screens.

IMAX screens have seen a series of firsts this year, and, interestingly enough, most of these firsts have a lot to do with animation. While DMR is on everyones mind right now, what does the future hold for animated films at IMAX? When asked if there were any plans to develop tools to aid in the production of animated features, an IMAX spokesperson said, IMAX is always looking for ways to further develop our technologies and to deliver the highest quality, family friendly entertainment, but could not comment on anything specific in the research and development stage. At this time the companys ultimate goal may be live-action day and date releases, but they are keenly aware that animation is a great asset in drawing audiences of all ages and will continue to support those interested in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic experience and narrative storytelling.

In short, what was once billed as the ultimate field trip is soon to become the ultimate movie-going experience.

Tina Paas is the assistant director and programmer for the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the associate editor of ASIFA International Magazine.

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