The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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The new Imax experience: Is it a big screen or a big scam?

May 13, 2009 |  1:35 pm

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.

ET-AzizAnsari

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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