Imax May Be The Greatest Film Delivery System Ever Developed, But Will It Prosper?

by Karl Cohen

"The Sorcerer’s Apprentice": the only segment found in both the original Fantasia and Disney’s Fantasia/2000. © The Walt Disney Co. All rights reserved.

Imax and Omnimax (the latter presents films on a giant curved ceiling) are probably the most impressive film delivery systems ever developed. Seeing remarkably sharp and extremely bright 80-foot high images and hearing an exceptional sound system is a commanding experience. The 70mm Imax prints stay free of dust and scratches as the film moves through the projector on cushions of air instead of on rollers. The theaters are lofty spaces with stadium seating and large comfortable chairs.

In recent months several animated works have been released in the medium and more are on the way. Disney’s Fantasia/2000 had an extremely profitable run in Imax halls. Theaters showing Cyberworld, a new animated 70mm film, are reporting good grosses.

Everything sounds rosy, so why has Imax stock gone from a high of $60+ at one time, to a low of less than $4 a share in October, 2000? It has lost over 70% of its value. The Canadian Press wrote, "In six weeks the market capitalization has been cut to about $200 million from $1.2 billion" (Oct. 13, 2000). Imax responded by saying the company’s stock price, "does not accurately reflect the company’s long term value."

Cyberworld’s saucy cyber hostess Phig. © Imax Ltd.

First the Good News
When Disney released Fantasia/2000 exclusively to Imax theaters at the beginning of this year they demonstrated that commercial animation can look magnificent on giant screens. When Fantasia/2000 grossed almost $50 million (on 75 screens) before it went into general release in 35mm theaters across the nation, they showed that animated films presented in the Imax format can also be profitable.

Also, with Cyberworld’s October release, the film proved that animation in Imax is even more incredible looking when seen using the latest 3D technology. Many, but not all, Imax theaters use state-of-the-art liquid crystal glasses. The 3D effect is easy on the eyes and the glasses are comfortable to wear. Cyberworld is a compilation film full of "cool" looking computer generated images. It is fine eye candy, but weak on story. It may be a hit with young people, but I prefer something with content. The film has grossed $1.9 million in 3 weeks (30 screens).

Animation presented in 70mm showed the potential of the medium as a fine art this year. The Old Man and the Sea is a 22-minute film by Alexander Petrov (Russia/Canada). He created it by painting almost 29,000 images on glass with oil paints. It won the Oscar for best animated short and major prizes at other film competitions. The Old Man and the Sea is one of the greatest animated films I have ever seen.

Scenes from Pandorama by cartoonist/animator Nina Paley, one of the several experimental short animated films being made for Imax. © Nina Paley.

There are also several experimental short animated films being made in Imax. The most recent is Pandorama by cartoonist/animator Nina Paley from San Francisco ( It is a 4-minute, 70mm animated film made without using a camera. She painted her 2,500 images directly onto the film. She also scratched on 70mm black leader and made impressions with rubber stamps. Pandorama has won several festival prizes and is distributed by Xlargo in Paris. Their first sale was to the Cinestar Imax theater in Berlin.

Nearly 3 months went into creating the approximately 2,500 images in the 4-minute, 70mm animated film made without using a camera. © Nina Paley.


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