- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

Imax Corp., the theater company whose name is synonymous with 60 by 80 foot screens and panoramic cinema, boasts on its Web site that it “has developed a digital projection system which provides consumers with the premium Imax experience they have come to know, value and expect.”

Consumers beg to differ.

In a bid to extend its brand beyond planetariums and museums and into multiplexes on every street corner, Imax is installing a new digital system in Regal and AMC theaters around the country.

Don’t be deceived: Although marketed under the same name, this is newfangled Imax, different and diminished from the traditional system. Installed in existing auditoriums, the screen is enlarged as much as possible, and the first few rows of seats are removed in order to create a field of vision more dominated by the screen, while the sound systems are souped up to deliver a more intense aural experience.

But the giant screens that were the hallmark of Imax are nowhere to be seen — the new digital screens are typically 28 to 35 feet high, about half the size of their predecessors — provoking protests from the blogosphere to the multiplex.

The uproar was sparked by Aziz Ansari, a comedian and actor who took to his blog to vent his outrage over a recent screening of “Star Trek” he attended. After driving out of his way to a theater equipped with an Imax system, he thought he had been duped.

“We get in the theatre and its [sic] just a slightly bigger than normal screen and NOT the usual standard huge 72 ft Imax screen,” he wrote about a “FAKE IMAX” screen. “These new ‘IMAX’ theatres are really just nice digital screens with good sound, but they ARE NOT IMAX, in that they don’t have the huge 72 ft gigantic screen which people would expect.” Picked up by movie blogs, his criticisms rippled through the Internet.

Greg Foster, the president of filmed entertainment of Imax, wrote in an e-mail that his company is evaluating the complaints. “Recently it has become clear that there is some confusion among consumers about the screen sizes in Imax theatres, and Imax is going to explore the best way to meet every guest’s deservedly high expectations of the Imax experience,” he said.

“It’s understandable that they’ve come up with a system that is less expensive for theaters,” says James Hyder, editor of LF Examiner, a journal dedicated to large-format film exhibitions, and a former manager of the Imax theater at the National Air and Space Museum. “My own personal position, and I think that of many in the business, is that nobody would have had a problem with Imax doing this if they promoted it with the ‘Imax Multiplex Experience’ or some branding that made it clear that it wasn’t the same as the huge giant screens.”

In conflating the digital Imax screens with the traditional film systems, the company runs the real risk of diluting the brand, Mr. Hyder says. “That was definitely the complaint” from managers of the traditional Imax theaters, he reports, paraphrasing their fears that customers whose initial experience was with one of the smaller screens might be lost irrevocably to Imax: “Those folks, if they go to a museum where they have a giant-screen Imax, they may say, ‘Pfft, what’s the point? I don’t need to see this, it’s just a movie.’ They won’t understand; they’ll miss out on the real giant-screen experience.”

Those concerns appear to be well-founded, to judge from a sampling of audience reaction after a recent screening of “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” on the digital Imax screen at the AMC Hoffman in Alexandria.

Garth and Crystal Sponseller said that was their first time seeing an Imax movie. They “sat toward the back because we didn’t want to crane our necks the whole time, and, honestly, by the time we did that, we might as well have been in a regular theater,” they said via e-mail afterward. “We don’t feel that it was worth the extra money.”

Matt Crouch, another patron, said he was impressed by the audio quality. “The first thing that jumped out at me was the difference in the sound, as opposed to traditional theaters,” he said. “It was quite noticeable — louder, but crisper, with more surround features.”

However, Mr. Crouch, a veteran of the larger Imax screens, wasn’t as impressed with the visual quality. “I didn’t notice an incredible difference,” he said. “It did seem, given our seat location, that we were closer to the screen in comparison to normal theaters. All in all, the price difference … is probably not worth it on a consistent basis.”

Customer concerns might not have reached their highest pitch yet.

One of the unique things about last summer’s mega-blockbuster “The Dark Knight” was director Christopher Nolan’s decision to shoot the action sequences with Imax cameras. When the movie screened at Imax theaters, the image would blow up from a standard widescreen shot to the giant full-screen image that is Imax’s hallmark.

This benefit was apparent only to those who watched the movie in a giant Imax theater. Customers who saw the movie at the local multiplex — be it on a standard 35 mm screen or on one of the digital Imax systems for which the customer paid $4 more per ticket — saw no difference.

The trouble is going to be driven home this summer with the June 26 release of “Transformers 2.” Like Mr. Nolan, Michael Bay shot certain sequences with Imax cameras and, as in “The Dark Knight,” those sequences will blow up into giant Imax proportions at the classic Imax theaters. Those watching the movie on digital Imax screens will notice little difference.

“Unless Imax takes some steps between now and June 26 to clarify that situation, which would basically come down to telling people don’t go to these digital theaters, go to the film theaters — which would be a pretty hard thing for them to do — I don’t know how they’re going to keep from having a fairly difficult situation on their hands with upset fans,” Mr. Hyden says.

• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at sbunch@washingtontimes.com.

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