The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The new Imax experience: Is it a big screen or a big scam?

I haven't seen Aziz Ansari yet on NBC's "Parks and Recreation," where he plays the character of Tom Haverford. But I love the character he plays on the blogosphere--the outraged moviegoer who gets ripped off going to see "Star Trek" at the Imax Experience at the AMC multiplex in Burbank. If you haven't seen Ansari's rant yet on his blog, it's a doozy, ripping Imax a new one for showing "Star Trek" in a theater that, while billed as an Imax giant screen--and costing a $5 premium for admission--was barely any bigger than an average-sized theater screen.


Ansari accused Imax CEO Richard Gelfond of "duping" customers and "whoring out their brand name" by charging an extra $5 for an inferior moviegoing experience, which Ansari dubbed "FAKE IMAX." Or as he put it (minus some expletives): "Gelfond said the company only puts IMAX digital systems into multiplex auditoriums that meet certain criteria. He jokingly said, 'It's a very scientific test. It's called the 'wow' factor. So if you don't go in and go 'wow,' we won't do it.' HAHAHA! REALLY FUNNY RICHARD!!! What happens if I go into the theater and go, 'This isn't a [expletive] IMAX screen. I just got ripped off for $5!! Do I get my money back?"

If nothing else, this is citizen journalism at its best. Imax has apparently been on an expansion binge for quite a while, building similar less-than-true-Imax-size screens, but the mainstream media, having lost hundreds upon hundreds of reporters to budget cutbacks, hadn't gotten around to exposing the practice. Ansari's blog post touched a populist nerve, getting picked up everywhere in the blogosphere, where Ansari was treated as a Seymour Hersh-style investigative hero. New York magazine's Vulture blog headlined its post "Ansari Uncovers Massive Fraud" while MTV Movies blogger Adam Rosenberg also sided with Ansari, saying that selling the Imax Experience on small-sized screens "strikes me as profoundly deceptive."

By Tuesday, with Ansari having gone on Twitter to marshal support for a consumer boycott, Imax was in full crisis management mode. Gelfond, whom Ansari nicknamed Darth Vader, gave an interview to Mainstreet,com, where he insisted that the company has been getting nothing but positive feedback from moviegoers, boasting that Imax did 15% of "Star Trek's" total domestic box office on only 138 screens. Gelfond even used a populist tactic of his own, claiming that 90% of the comments on Ansari's own blog vehemently disagreed with his own posting.

Not everyone bought this argument, with MTV's Rosenberg pointing out that the Imax CEO didn't bother to address the most pivotal issue--why are so many screens so much smaller than IMAX fans have come to expect? I'm not much of a geek about these issues, so if you want a more in-depth, objective analysis about what's going on, I recommend this post from Mark Wilson at Gizmondo (the Gadget Blog). He explains in plain English what's happening. Like all corporations in the modern capitalist world, Imax has felt the pressure to grow to prosper. Having previously built its own theaters in its own buildings, the company has now struck deals with major theater chains to turn various AMC and Regal screens into Imax Experiences. Imax handles the projectors, speakers and screens--meaning the quality control--while the theaters pay for structural renovations.

It's the retrofitting that has caused the uproar, with many of the new screens being far smaller than the original enormous wall-sized systems that came to represent Imax. I'm sure that Imax provides superior sound and picture quality, but theaters have upgraded the moviegoing experience many times in the past, via stadium seating, Dolby sound, digital projection, etc., without making us foot the bill. So why should we have to pay $5 extra if we're not getting the genuine Imax immersive experience? I'd love to hear your thoughts, but for now, it's something of a wonder to see that it was an enraged comedian-actor, not a seasoned reporter, who almost single-handedly made this a front-burner issue for moviegoers everywhere. 

Photo of  Aziz Ansari by Jason Merritt / Getty Images.

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Just a technical clarification regarding the IMAX screen size diagram in the lfexaminer.
Not all "true, classic" IMAX screens are the same size. They have always been sized according to market size. For example, the diagram shows the screen size for the very largest metropolitan area, New York City. Smaller cities have smaller screens. Chattanooga has a 50 x 67 foot screen. Louiville, KY has had a classic IMAX since 1988 at the Louiville Science Center, and their screen is 41 x 58 feet. I've seen it as a visitor and it was indeed a "real" IMAX experience, and in 20 years I'd venture to say few have ever accused the Louiville Science Center of not having a "real" IMAX. OTOH, there is an MPX IMAX theater in Louiville that has a 24 x 47 foot screen. Perhaps that is the size screen that is being discussed here?

The regular large screen imax is the only way to go. I will never got to a digital theater anyway if I have a choice. Seems like it would be a big television anyway.

IMAX used to mean big picture, big resolution and big sound.

The Hollywood blowups did away with the big resolution (portions of Dark Knight being the notable exception) but for some people that was ok; they loved the giant screen.

Now with the new system they are taking even that away leaving only a reasonably decent sound system. How ironic that just as innovative filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are seeing what incredible things can be done in IMAX, IMAX Corporation is slowly doing away with the very reason for their own existence.

Overlapping twin 2K DLP projectors that are barely acceptable 35mm substitutes simply cannot come close to a film system that is 10 times larger than the largest 35 format.

It's interesting to note that for 3D, the IMAX setup which is simple two projector 3D with simple polarizing filters and simple polarized glasses, is something ANY theatre can do if they are willing to spring for a 2nd digital projector. It's a better 3D presentation by far than something like, say "Real D" but nothing like real IMAX 3D.

For 2D the twin digital projectors are used to double the brightness and are, apparently, offset slightly to hide the pixel grid. It is said they do some sort of proprietary hocus pocus with the data being sent to each projector. But it's still just a 2K presentation off 2K data files. AMC just signed a deal with Sony to install their 4K projectors circuit-wide. 4K is not double the resolution of 2K; it's actually a 4 times improvement.

Which means that as digital post production and projection moves towards 4K soon it will be true that the IMAX screen at a typical AMC multiplex will be showing a quarter of the resolution of all the other screens in the complex!

IMAX is shooting themselves in the foot much the same way that Cinerama did 45 years ago. They built a reputation on an immersive experience then dumbed it down to save money showing ordinary movies on their curved screens.

Yes, someday there *should* be a digital version of IMAX with all that that implies. What IMAX is currently foisting on the public is not it.

Here is a map by which one may avoid the digital (fake) IMAX theatres:

Steve in Chicago

PS: IMAX actually got a patent on converting multiplex cinemas into "super cinemas" by removing a few rows of seats and installing a slightly larger screen closer to the remaining seats. I think that says as much about our patent office as it does IMAX.

I will never again pay for this and have proceeded to tell everyone I can to stay away. I bitched for 30 minutes to the theater customer service person and got a $5 discount. SO do this and they will shut it down. Hell my cousins who have never seen a true Imax experiecne said they felt it was a rip off and when i told them what a real imax screens size was they were pissed. What Jackass said hey lets just take a regular screen and stretch it vertically and charge $5 more for it. F you, Jackass F you.

Lots of crying on this thread. Just saw Transformers 2 at AMC Aventura in South Florida. As long as you know it's not actual an IMAX theater (which you should realize), it's a worthwhile upgrade. Although I did not see it on the regular screens to compare, it's just $4 more. Skip the popcorn and go for the upgrade. Bring some Kleenex too because you will cry at how good it is.

I saw an IMAX movie at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and was enthralled. I got the idea to go see "A Christmas Carol" in IMAX 3-D thinking that it would be the same type of theater. A total of 12 people drove 2 hours each way to see this movie. Needless to say, I was disappointed. It was nothing like I was expecting. Now the movie was great - no doubt about that. But I could have seen it locally in 3-D, saved the extra IMAX surcharge and a tank of gas. I won't be doing that again.

I've seen Avatar in IMAX 3D in a "real" IMAX theatre and I STILL would not pay the price to see it on that big screen.

The problem I noticed is that even though the screen is big, the movie wasn't filmed to fit a real IMAX screen. There was still dead space on the top and bottom of the screen.

Plus the 3D experience is no good to a man with one eye like myself.

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