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Is Your IMAX Theater Giving You the MAXimum Experience?

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 12:19 PM by Scott Jentsch

Television and movie actor Aziz Ansari (Parks & Recreation, I Love You Man) ignited a bit of a firestorm this week when he ranted on his blog (caution: profanity laced tirade) that the IMAX theater he attended to watch Star Trek: The IMAX Experience on Tuesday did not live up to his expectations.

Apparently, he attended the AMC Burbank 16 & IMAX in Burbank, California and was very disappointed that the screen was not the huge size that he had come to expect when seeing the IMAX brand. Apparently, the presentation he attended was one of the IMAX MPX theaters, where a normal multiplex-sized auditorium is converted to have a larger screen (larger than a standard movie screen, but not larger in relation to standard IMAX screens) that is closer to the audience and provides a more in-your-face experience.

The idea behind the MPX concept was to allow more theaters to install IMAX-branded gear to show IMAX-converted versions of first-run movies, instead of IMAX being largely relegated to museums and tourist spots showing 45-minute documentaries that IMAX was so well known-for in years past. The goal of this initiative was successful to a degree, as many IMAX "MPX" theaters have cropped up in recent years, and versions of commercial movies labeled as having "The IMAX Experience" and "An IMAX 3D Experience" have flourished.

What Ansari ran into, and what he had a problem with, was the drastic difference in size between the two types of theaters.

The typical IMAX movie theater screen measures 72' wide by 53' high. Wikipedia states that the largest IMAX screen is in Sydney, Australia and measures 117' wide by 96' high. According to a 2003 press release from IMAX, the smaller MPX systems can have screen sizes up to 70' wide by 44' high, which is large by standard movie screen standards, but not exactly the maximum experience that one might expect when going to a movie with the IMAX label on it.

Comparison of IMAX screen sizes - copyright 2009

That's the maximum size, and we're seeing that a more typical size is around 58' wide by 28' high. To top it off, most theaters charge an additional fee for IMAX presentations, usually around $4 - $5. Combine the smaller experience with the higher price, and you can see why disappointment can turn to frustration.

Ansari's post has lit up the "blogosphere," turning the issue into a hot topic that is spreading like wildfire around the Internet. Bloggers and traditional news outlets are picking up on the story, and IMAX even had to devote some time during its scheduled investor conference call to address the issue. Posts like this one on movieline.com and a post titled "The Great IMAX Scam" written by our Featured Critic, James Berardinelli, are weighing in, and industry trade publication The Hollywood Reporter has an article titled "Imax seeks to repair blog complaint damage" which discusses the damage control IMAX representatives were attempting during their investor conference call.

A blog called "Destroy Fake IMAX" on liemax.com has created a Google Map showing all the sites of what they consider to be "fake" IMAX screens (the smaller ones) and also which ones they consider to be "real IMAX" in the hopes of steering people away from the lesser screens.

Who's Wrong?

Ansari's mistake when he attended the movie was not to walk out immediately after seeing the size of the theater he entered. By watching the movie in its entirety and then complaining afterward, he had little ground to stand on when it came to wanting his money back. The AMC Burbank 16 & IMAX was showing Star Trek in a traditional theater as well, so depending on what time he attended, he might have been able to exchange his ticket and get his $5 back and see the movie on one of the regular screens.

The bigger mistake, and the harder one to correct, is the one made by IMAX Corporation when they created these new smaller screens, but then didn't brand them differently. In an article from last October titled "Is IMAX the next New Coke?," the LF Examiner contends that IMAX didn't want to differentiate these new smaller screens that were getting digital projectors installed. I'm thinking that IMAX is second-guessing that decision right now, but I would also imagine that they are hoping to weather this storm, figuring that the attention will be redirected to something else soon and they can continue on without having to change anything.

Can It Be Fixed?

Hopefully, IMAX will make a change that differentiates between the traditional IMAX screens and the smaller IMAX MPX screens. Theaters should also follow the industry by indicating when a show is in IMAX Digital, which is an IMAX MPX screen driven by digital projectors instead of film projectors. To their credit, some theaters are doing this already, but it's not consistent.

Lacking any kind of designation, customers don't have any way to know for sure which IMAX they are going to be seeing unless they ask specifically beforehand. When you're charging an additional fee for a show labeled "IMAX" you're going to get some disgruntled people if it doesn't live up to their expectations.

My first inclination is that the easy solution to this entire mess is for IMAX to come up with simple brands to identify what customers should expect:

  • IMAX (the standard variety)
  • IMAX MPX (the smaller variety)
  • and the addition of a "-D" moniker to designate shows using digital projectors

The only problem with this approach is that it is possible for the largest IMAX MPX theater screen to be larger than the smallest standard IMAX screen. And when it comes right down to it, isn't the important information the actual size of the screen and sound system installed, rather than what marketing designation has been given to it?

Here's an example. The Star Cinema 18 and IMAX in Madison, Wisconsin has an IMAX screen that is approximately 70' wide by 50' tall. They are using a film projector to show Star Trek: The IMAX Experience. According to the "fake" vs. "real" people, which would this theater fall into?

My answer would be "real" because of the size of the screen. However, this press release from March 2005 identifies the system going into that theater as an IMAX MPX system, which is the smaller of the two IMAX systems. So does that make it "fake"? I've been in that theater, and the presentation was pretty good and I felt that I got my money's worth.

The screen size should be just part of your consideration when going to a movie, as well.

How good is the sound system in that theater? IMAX theaters (both kinds) have some pretty powerful sound systems, and with the big action blockbuster movies, the impact of those sound systems on the total experience shouldn't be discounted.

Is the picture bright enough to fill the screen well? Is it always in focus, or does someone up in the booth need new glasses? Is the picture steady or does it jump around like a sugared-up toddler?

These are all aspects of good presentation, which is why it's wrong to single out just one aspect and harp on it until you're blue in the face.

What You Can Do to Get the Best for Your Money

Even though a lot of excitement has been stirred up, I think it will flame out quickly, and nothing will have improved as a result of all the blustering. It's still important to look behind the marketing and the branding and consider the merits of each theater and whether that theater deserves your business. This should be considered especially when a theater wants to charge an additional fee for some special presentation, whether it be IMAX, UltraScreen, 3D, or VIP seating.

As with everything you spend money on, be an informed consumer. Reward theaters that provide a great presentation with your business and shun those that do not. Voting with your wallet is the most effective way to make change happen, because the theaters will always chase the money.

What We're Doing to Help

At The BigScreen Cinema Guide, one of our primary goals since this site was founded in 1995 was to educate moviegoers to the important aspects of high quality presentations. Back when digital sound wasn't very common, we took great pains to identify which movies were presented in digital sound, even asking theaters to specify which sound system was being used. We even have documentation about the formats and why digital sound matters. The same goes for THX and Digital Cinema Projection Systems.

When possible, we provide additional information about the equipment and amenities at each theater. Take a look at the Information Page for the Marcus Majestic Cinema in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area for an example of what information about theaters that we can provide our readers.

As we can collect and verify the information, we will indicate what size the IMAX screens are at theaters as well. The two theaters we have collected information on so far are the Regal Lincolnshire 20 & IMAX Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois and the Star Cinema 18 and IMAX in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, so you can click on those links to view the information we've collected so far.

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