IMAX Expansion, More Than Meets the Eye?

Side by side comparison of IMAX screens.

Rendering comparison of IMAX screens . . . and Optimus.

Back in March I was excited with the release of Watchmen here in Hawaii. Not because I was a fan of the graphic novel that was adapted into a movie, but because Oahu would see the reintroduction of an IMAX screen that would show commercial/Hollywood films. Before the movie began though I had an uneasy feeling just from stepping into the theater . . . this was not the IMAX I was expecting to see, it[the screen] was smaller. Granted my experience with watching films on IMAX is somewhat limited having only seen two commercial films on IMAX and having been to only four theaters. However, I was expecting something more when I stepped into Regal Dole Cannery’s IMAX theater, something bigger.

Looking into the matter a bit more I discovered that what most likely happened at Dole was an IMAX retrofitting done in partnership between IMAX and Regal where IMAX will install proprietary projectors, speakers, and hardware if the theater pays for structural modifications to make this happen in a process described here by Gizmodo. Traditionally in the past IMAX would be responsible for constructing it’s own buildings and theaters, but in order to rapidly expand, IMAX developed retrofitting partnerships with established theater chains to expand their brand.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, the IMAX brand itself is associated with huge screens that show unbelievable picture quality, pounding surround sound, and unfortuneately . . . a higher ticket price than your average movie. Personally I can attest to many of these feelings. When I saw Star Wars: Episode II on the old Waikiki IMAX the picture quality was AMAZING. Other non-commercial films that I’ve seen on traditional IMAX screens have also created this same sort of “wow” factor as well. IMAX movies, in the past, give you more of an “experience” rather than a”viewing.’

Needless to say that when you have this type of expectation and you don’t get it, you’re going to have people feeling a little let down. Case in point Aziz Ansari, a Los Angeles actor/comedian. Recently he caused quite a stir when he got upset after seeing Star Trek: The IMAX Experience in Burbank, California and felt cheated because it wasn’t the “traditional” IMAX screen that I just previously described. He set out on a campaign to “expose” the “fake IMAXs” in a post on his blog. Well the dust up caused such a stir that Imax CEO Richard Gelfond has been addressing the media assuring moviegoers that:

Imax enjoys enormous customer satisfaction, backing up the claim with a market-research study that found that 98% of Imax moviegoers had enjoyed their experience at the new, medium-sized theaters as much as at the older giant screens.
To bring us back to the beginning, is my source of disappointment about our new Hawaii IMAX the same as Ansari’s? At it’s core yes, it is. We paid a premium price for a movie and it didn’t deliver on what we were expected. Granted it was still a pretty good experience, there is a noticeable difference between the retrofitted IMAX and a regular movie screen (about the same difference between standard definition and HD TV) as well as enhanced sound, but in the end it’s not the same as traditional IMAX theaters. I mean for both Watchmen and Star Trek, the picture didn’t even fill the whole screen.

In the end it’s all about understanding. Has this disappointment led me to the same boycott as Ansari? No. I’m still a true movie fan at heart and I hate to say it but there’s not that much that will stop me from seeing movies, espeically if I can get a better experience on the new retrofitted IMAX. Yes I’m ok with paying premium pricing, but now I know what I’m getting myself into and understand it. Also, since it does cost more for IMAX I’ll be picky about which movies I’ll see in IMAX. For starters from now on I’ll only see movies that are shot in IMAX at the IMAX theater (not all films are shot in IMAX, most features are converted/upscaled to IMAX quality, see Gizmodo article). Besides, being here in Hawaii with limited options for movies, we need to embrace what we have. I’m just as excited as the next person to see Optimus Prime on the IMAX big screen. (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that comes out next week was shot in IMAX).


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