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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Should Imax tell moviegoers the size of its screens?


As you may remember from our recent coverage, "Parks and Recreation" costar Aziz Ansari caused a huge flap when he put up an outraged post on his blog excoriating Imax after he went to see "Star Trek" at the Imax Experience at the AMC complex in Burbank -- and discovered the supposedly giant Imax screen was barely any bigger than an average-sized theater screen. Feeling ripped off (after all, he'd paid an extra $5), he blasted Imax for "duping" its customers and "whoring out their brand name." What's worse, everyone in the blogosphere picked up the story, adding snarky touches of their own, resulting in a full-bore PR disaster for the company.

It couldn't have come at a worse time, since Imax is in the midst of a dramatic expansion campaign as it transforms itself from a haven for specialized nature and space films to a preferred fanboy and family destination for high-end, digitally projected Hollywood blockbusters. Imax executives say they are putting Imax technology into two to three new theaters across the U.S. each week. When Imax opened "The Dark Knight" last July, the film played in 94 theaters, all using traditional film projection. When "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" opens today, it will screen in 160 Imax theaters, 78 of which will offer digital projection. By the time Jim Cameron's "Avatar" arrives in December, Imax will be showing the film in roughly 220 theaters. (There are considerably more Imax theaters -- at last count 371 theaters in more than 40 countries -- that show a variety of films in addition to Hollywood fare.)

This growth spurt of new screens is possible because Imax has entered into profit-sharing agreements with various theater chains, allowing the company to speed the expansion of its network by retrofitting existing theaters instead of constructing stand-alone structures. But if moviegoers think they're getting ripped off, the Imax growth strategy could be severely hamstrung. Perhaps that's why Imax CEO Richard Gelfond asked me to have lunch with him this week, eager to clear the air about the screen size controversy. (I guess our headline "Is It a Big Screen or a Big Scam?" caught his attention.) Over sandwiches at Imax's Santa Monica headquarters, Gelfond got right to the point. He continues to insist that Imax enjoys enormous customer satisfaction, backing up the claim with a market-research study that found that 98% of Imax moviegoers had enjoyed their experience at the new, medium-sized theaters as much as at the older giant screens.

But he says he's taking nothing for granted. "The bottom line is -- we're listening to our customers. We're commissioning a study from a Hollywood market research firm, who's going to see how big of an issue this is. Is it just a few bloggers or there is really a bigger adverse audience reaction?"

I'm a little suspicious of polling, since the person or corporation who commissions the poll usually gets the results they want. So I asked Gelfond why Imax doesn't simply offer more truth in advertising. If the hot button issue is theater size, why not put up signage outside its theaters that tells consumers what size the theater screen is?  Did Gelfond have a good answer? Keep reading:

I wasn't sure at first whether I made any headway. Gelfond initially hedged, saying "we're thinking about doing that kind of thing." He was concerned that simply identifying the screen size might be somewhat misleading, since in the retrofitted theaters, the first few rows of seating have been removed, allowing the screen to be closer to moviegoers, which Gelfond says provides an enhanced cinema experience. "The screen might only be 55 feet, but in that setting, it looks like it's 80 feet," he explained.

However, when we had a second conversation the day after our lunch, Gelfond was more resolute. "I want to be clear," he said. "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. We are going to give people more information -- it's just a matter of how and where."

That would be good news. Imax is a great format. It doesn't make a bad movie any better, as anyone who saw "Monsters vs. Aliens" at an Imax theater could attest. But seeing "The Dark Knight" in Imax was a spectacular, totally immersive experience. Moviegoers have been voting with their feet. Gelfond says that even though Imax is only showing "Star Trek" on less than 2% of the film's overall screens, the movie is doing roughly 16% of its business at Imax theaters. On Wednesday night, "Star Trek" did 19% of its business in Imax.

Gelfond says the company will only install Imax into the largest screen in a theater complex. "There has to be a minimum amount of seats and screen capability," he says. "If we're not the biggest theater in the multiplex and the location doesn't meet our threshold, we turn them down. We've done it a lot. We don't cut corners." In the past, Imax had a chicken and egg problem -- it couldn't get enough movies because it couldn't deliver enough theaters and it couldn't deliver enough theaters because it didn't have access to enough films. But today that's changed, with a host of top filmmakers, including Cameron, Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis, embracing the format.

"We take very seriously the responsibility of bringing the coolest movies possible to the Imax screen," says Greg Foster, the company's president of filmed entertainment. "There's a correlation between tentpole and Imax in the public mind and I think the box-office results are bearing that out."

I have no beef with Imax's roll-out plan, which is essentially a way to establish itself as a Big Movie Experience franchise. Unlike 3-D, which still largely looks like a marketing hustle, designed to grab more dollars from gullible moviegoers, Imax is a great format for the new breed of tech-savvy filmmakers that have increasingly come to dominate the studio landscape.

But it should use the flap over its screen size as an opportunity to educate moviegoers. If you tell people the size of your screen, they'll be far less likely to feel like they've been oversold once they're inside the theater. Forewarned is forearmed. It's not a concept the movie business has often embraced -- they prefer to take your money before you discover how lackluster their latest movie really is -- but it's a concept that would earn Imax a lot of good will. 


Photo of Nathan Clukey, left, and Edwin Roque-Rivera waiting in line for the first public screening of "Star Trek" in Imax at Universal CityWalk by Matt Sayles / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (13)

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I had the same reaction when I walked into the, uh, "IMAX" theater in Arcadia.
To avoid future confusion, "IMAX" should rename itself "IMED."

"He continues to insist that Imax enjoys enormous customer satisfaction, backing up the claim with a market-research study that found that 98% of Imax moviegoers had enjoyed their experience at the new, medium-sized theaters as much as at the older giant screens."

I don't believe this.

And price accordingly! Why was there no mention of that? Charging the same IMAX price for a smaller "IMAX Experience" is more than misleading, it's the very definition of scam. Attempting to hoax someone into believing a screen is 80 feet just by making them sit closer is insulting. That's like telling someone to get on the ground, lie at someone's feet and look up at his nostrils and saying" There! Doesn't he like ginormous from all the way down there?". Sitting closer to my TV screen doesn't make the image any bigger. It just gives me a headache.
Come clean, IMAX. And tell the faux-IMAX theatre owners to knock a few dollars off the ticket prices.

Okay, I am confused - what *is* IMAX? I thought it was a large format films shown on a giant screen (with multi-track magnetic sound). The giant screen being part of the deal.

When we are dealing with a film that was shot on 35mm (not the 65mm or 70mm that Imax docs are shot on) what makes it an Imax film? You transfer the 35mm to the larger format - but if it was not shot in a large format you don't get any extra picture quality (just a generation *down* in quality). And the mag stripes *do* allow separation of sound for a "real" surround sound - but only if it was mixed for that... do they do a different sound mix (and different recording) for Imax? Or is it just the same sound slapped onto the mag stripes?

IIf the *original* picture quality and sound quality are not "Imax", how is the film any different? It's just the same original shown on different equipment.

IIt all comes back to screen size.

What is Imax?

- Bill

I saw STAR TREK at IMAX at The Bridge Theatres complex in Westchester and it is the biggest IMAX screen in the area. That said, I also saw a film at the IMAX at the AMC Century City complex when it first opened and I walked into the theatre and said "What's changed?" I remember seeing ads in the lobby for the "new IMAX' at the AMC Century City for months and kept looking around for new construction thinking a HUGE IMAX was being built somewhere or the roof of part of the mall had to be raised, so when it DID open after NOT seeing any new construction and all I got was a bigger screen walking into the same old THEATRE ONE I realized I had been ripped off. IT's JUST NOT IMAX. Only the big HUGE IMAX are truly IMAX. They are going to dilute and kill their brand. Charging extra for a huge IMAX I can handle. Charging more for these MINI-MAX screens is an outrage. Regardless, IMAX is poised to make a really, really fatal business mistake. And it's turning into a PR night mare. We'll all just go back to sitting really close to our big screen TVs at home and upgrading our sound systems again and have our HOME-MAX systems instead.

Small screen = "LieMAX".
I've been to both formats, and the small screen IMAX is nothing compared to the large-screen, tru-IMAX. Do your research. Tru-IMAX in L.A.? The Bridge at Howard Hughes and AMC Universal Citywalk. LieMAX? The AMC Century 15. You've been warned...

AMC Burbank: FauxMax. Beware.

I completely concur with the above two comments. I wish I HAD been warned.

I, too, have for a long time been going to see IMAX releases at the Bridge and or Universal Citywalk, which for me means driving much farther than I ever would otherwise to see a movie, .

I was really excited, then, to learn that the Century City AMC had "built" an IMAX theater, as it's about three times as close to where I live than the above mentioned theaters.

When I walked into the so-called IMAX theater at the AMC Century City theater two weeks ago to see STAR TREK, after having paid a full $5 extra, I was incredulous and confused. I wondered if somehow after I had walked under the big IMAX sign outside the entrance to the auditorium I had gotten turned around somewhere. But I soon realized that the screen, while to my mind in no way an IMAX screen (nor the auditorium anything like a true IMAX theater), was larger (a little) than a regular multiplex screen, and that I was indeed in the right theater.

I figured, 'Well, I'll give it a chance.' And no question, the movie looked great. Not (as far as I could tell, but I'm no expert) darker at all than 35 mm -- but that may be because much of STAR TREK -- the scenes on the Enterprise -- was so very bright.

But what I have always loved about IMAX is the feeling of being almost OVERWHELMED by the movie, or of feeling that I'm actually flying along with Harry on the back of his griffin over that lake, etc.

I would have been okay with paying, let's say, up to $1.50 extra to have seen Star Trek at the AMC in their "IMAX experience" -- as I said, it looked really good, and the sound was great, too -- , and if they had been honest about what this was, which wasn't what people think of when they think "IMAX".

But $5 more? I felt deceived and ripped off. I talked to a manager afterwards, and he tried to feed me a whole line of bs, insisting that this was actually a better and more immersive experience than the IMAX at the Bridge. Ha! He threw out stuff about The Bridge's auditorium being shallower, but the AMC screen actually being wider than The Bridge's, blah blah blah. But I knew that a lot of what he was saying just wasn't true.

I'll never make the mistake of paying $5 extra to see a movie in "the IMAX experience" at the Century City AMC again. They really should be ashamed. I sincerely hope they read this, and get a sense of people's anger from these comments.

FIrst of all, as far as the AMC Century City goes, screen #2 (which is now Imax Digital) is not their biggest screen. That, I believe, is screen #1, right next store.

For digital, it looks better, and when the lights go down, the experience is similar, but obviously not the same as seeing a film on an 80'-foot plus screen.

Now that at least one manufacturer, Evans & Sutherland, to be specific, has announced a digital projector capable of, if I got it right, 16K, maybe Imax should be looking at it with the intent to install if it meets their criteria..........for film.

My major complaint at this point are the 3D polarized glasses that Imax is using (at least in Century City, Ca.) for their digital screens. They appear to be using circular polarizer, which is fine, however the frames are so thick at the septum point (where they border one's nose) that one gets the feeling of losing some of the image....and that is particularly annoying. Considering that once they used left over giant Astralvision 3D anaglyph glasses left over from 1983 to test the waters with an anaglyph short...and then came up with some pretty nice glasses designs of their own, the current design is a major dissapointment and, in my opinion, needs a drastic redesign. Other than that, let the audience be aware. JK

Audiences should be aware of the difference in screen size. In fact, when I first saw Imax Digital at the AMC in Century City, Ca., it was NOT on the largest screen, but rather next to the largest screen.

Of course, the image is superior relative to Digital projection and the screen placement does give you some sense of the real thing, but its not quite there.

My major complaint, however, isnt with the screen size, but the design of the glasses for Imax digital, if what they are handing out in Century City is representative for the format. The frames are thick, and at the septum (where the frames cover the nose) seem to cut off some of the image. In fact, seems is really an understatement. Historically, Imax used left over cardboard broadcast intended Astralvision 3D anaglyph glasses (which were giant glasses originally intended to loose the claustraphobic effect associated with their smaller counterparts) to test the waters with a short subject that could be played in any Imax theatre. Following that, they came up with some very practical designs of their own which do not block vision, so from that standpoint, they should go for a drastic redesign.

Other than that, its still better than having to see a 3D film in a multiplex using stacked frame (over/under) - which killed 3D for the second time in 1983.

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