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IMAX Getting Competition from Many Directions - But Are the Alternatives Really Better?

Posted on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 1:18 PM. Last Updated on Monday, April 19th, 2010 7:07 AM by Scott Jentsch

With the recent announcement by Regal Cinemas of their new RPX: Regal Premium Experience, IMAX is seeing more and more competition for the wallets of ticket-buying moviegoers.

AMC has their new ETX "Enhanced Theater Experience" screen that will be available soon in California. Cinemark has been opening XD auditoriums left and right, with 22 cities done so far, and more planned. Marcus Theatres was one of the first of the big chains to offer a big-screen alternative to IMAX with their UltraScreens, of which there are now 12 locations in seven states.

All of these promise the paying public an upgraded movie-watching experience, and none of them are limited to the schedule of IMAX-converted movies, and none of them have to pay a licensing fee to IMAX.

Regal's RPX: Regal Premium ExperienceAMC ETX - Enhanced Theatre Experience
Cinemark's XDMarcus UltraScreen

 

How did this happen?

There was a time when IMAX had the biggest screen around. "Way back when," all you could watch on IMAX screens were 40-minute documentaries that threatened your lunch when the camera launched itself off the edge of a cliff. The effect was incredible, because you were watching it on a screen that was often more than 70 feet wide and 50 feet high, and it filled your entire field of vision.

IMAX went mainstream in 2002 when it released an IMAX-specific version of Apollo 13 and called it Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience. Since that time, many movies have been converted to the "IMAX Experience" (43 "IMAX Experience" and 15 "IMAX 3D Experience" released and/or coming soon) and some serious money was starting to be made by those involved.

This created pressure to build more IMAX installations, but the high cost and the space necessary to do a traditional IMAX theater made it prohibitive to do on a widespread basis. To answer this, IMAX created what it called the MPX system, which allowed theaters to be smaller and many locations were able to convert a standard 35mm film auditorium to an IMAX MPX auditorium by modifying the seating, upgrading the screen and sound system, and the massive IMAX projection system.

That last item was still a sticking point, so IMAX created the IMAX Digital Theatre System, which replaced the gigantic IMAX film and projector with a digital projection system that utilizes two Digital Cinema projectors in a stacked arrangement. The digital system does not have the resolution capability of the film system, but it's cheaper and easier to operate, so many/most new IMAX installations utilize the digital system.

As a result, IMAX took their established brand and tried to cash in on the fact that people were willing to pay an upcharge on their movie ticket to see a movie with the big picture and big sound that IMAX was known for.

And in the process, they diluted their brand by allowing for smaller theaters to be built and old auditoriums to be converted to fit the IMAX equipment. They diluted it again by replacing the massive film that IMAX was so well known for and using the same digital projectors that are used in non-IMAX installations.

This issue got national attention in May 2009 when comedian Aziz Ansari ranted on his blog (caution: profanity laced tirade) that the IMAX theater he attended to watch Star Trek: The IMAX Experience did not live up to his expectations. Rather than a massive IMAX screen, the AMC Burbank 16 in Burbank, California had a screen that measured about 63 feet wide by 37 feet high, almost 40% smaller than the typical 72 feet wide by 53 feet high measurements of traditional IMAX screens.

While IMAX executives tried to skirt around the issue, the damage was done and the brand took a hit in the process. It provided the opportunity that the movie chains are now taking advantage of by releasing these "enhanced" experiences.

Similar Features, Similar Upcharges, Less Uproar

Oddly enough, these IMAX competitors are offering many of the same features, and they are doing it while charging about the same upcharges that IMAX theaters are charging.

For example, the newly announced RPX installation at the Regal E-Walk 13 in New York City has a screen that is 60 feet wide, according to the press release issued by Regal Cinemas. The height is not mentioned, but if we assume that it is a 2.35:1 screen, the height should be 25.5 feet.

The nearby AMC Empire 25's IMAX screen is reportedly 58 feet by 28 feet. That's a 2:1 aspect ratio, so for the sake of comparison between the two, and since Iron Man 2 was shot in 2.35:1, let's put the effective height of its screen image at just over 24.5 feet.

That makes both screens virtually identical in size, with a difference of less than 4%. Both charge the same amount of money for a non-3D movie ($18.50 for an adult ticket to an evening show).

Since the relatively small IMAX screen at the AMC Empire 25 was held up as an example of what was wrong about what IMAX has been doing, I wonder if there will be any uproar at all over what Regal is announcing? Isn't it the same thing?

Marcus Gets It Right

At least with Marcus' UltraScreens, movie fans are getting some bang for their buck. In the Milwaukee, Wisconsin market, there are three UltraScreens and one IMAX screen (as well as one IMAX Dome, but that's best suited for documentaries intended to be shown on the domed screen).

The two UltraScreens at the Marcus Majestic Brookfield in Waukesha both measure 72 feet wide by 31 feet high (which comes to approximately 2.35:1). For a non-3D evening show, an adult will pay $11.00 for general seating.

In comparison, the AMC Mayfair Mall 18 in Wauwatosa (about 15 minutes away) has a new IMAX screen that measures 50 feet wide by 26.5 feet high, which is about 41% smaller than the Marcus UltraScreens. The current price for a non-3D adult evening ticket costs $14.50.

Marcus is definitely offering a value-packed proposition here. The ticket price is $3.50 less and you get a bigger picture. The 24,000 watt sound system can probably keep up nicely with that in the IMAX auditorium, and Marcus also recently upgraded the UltraScreens for 3D projection.

If more movie theaters were to follow Marcus' lead, IMAX would have even more to worry about!

It's great that there is competition in the big-screen market at movie theaters. However, we feel that audiences should get more bang for their hard-earned dollars than what we're seeing announced as alternatives to the IMAX experience. Since the audience is in control (we have the money that theaters want), we need to demand the best possible experiences for that money!



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