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IMAX Looks to The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man
By RACHEL DODES
As a kid growing up in Chicago, Hollywood director Christopher Nolan used to visit the Museum of Science and Industry to watch IMAX movies like "Everest" and "To Fly," a history of aviation.
"I remember looking at the audience every time a helicopter banked, and everyone was leaning slightly to the side," recalls Mr. Nolan, who insisted on using IMAX technology for his newest "Batman" epic "The Dark Knight Rises." "I had never seen an audience so immersed in a film."
After decades of functioning as something like a planetarium—an attraction designed to spice up museums by showing documentaries aimed at families and nature enthusiasts—IMAX is suddenly in the spotlight.
When Mr. Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" opens July 20, it will contain the most IMAX footage ever for a Hollywood feature, more than one hour's worth. There were 40 minutes of such footage in 2008's "The Dark Knight"—which set box-office records in its opening weekend. IMAX's summer slate also includes potential blockbusters "The Avengers," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Men in Black 3," Tim Burton's gothic comedy "Dark Shadows," and Ridley Scott's 3-D "Prometheus." Mr. Nolan's film was the only one shot using IMAX cameras; the others were converted using IMAX's technology.
Studios are inviting IMAX executives to movie sets and rearranging opening dates to guarantee a release in the company's trademarked theaters, known for large floor-to-ceiling curved screens, grand stadium seating, surround sound, and premium prices. IMAX tickets cost about 30% more than those sold at standard theaters—about $15 or more for a ticket in New York or Los Angeles.
With flat-screen TVs and other couch-potato options like Netflix exploding, and theater attendance declining, studios need IMAX to provide marketing pop—oh-wow moments, word-of-mouth, and high ticket prices to amp up opening-weekend box office numbers, generating yet more buzz.
And most importantly, a generation of directors with clout love the way it makes their movies look.Inspired by Mr. Nolan's successful use of the cameras, a group of directors, including J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek"), Brad Bird ("Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol") and Michael Bay ("Transformers"), have been increasingly using IMAX to shoot scenes for their movie spectacles.
"I think audiences are starting to associate IMAX with the big event movies—that the two things go hand in hand," says Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, the studio behind all three franchises.
The year's hottest movie so far, "The Hunger Games," did so well on IMAX screens that it is returning to them at the first opportunity, on April 27. When a digitally remastered, 3-D version of James Cameron's "Titanic" was released earlier this month at 79 IMAX theaters domestically—in addition to thousands of others—IMAX accounted for nine of the 10 top-performing locations during opening weekend.
As always in Hollywood, IMAX's marquee moment could be fleeting. Theater owners are building their own large-screen theaters and charging less. New technologies could sweep in at any time.
Many directors had been intrigued by IMAX in the past, but their studio partners didn't see the allure. The cameras, which hold just three minutes of 70mm film, running horizontally, are notoriously loud, requiring the dubbing of dialogue after shooting action scenes. They also weigh about 90 pounds, which can make them challenging to maneuver, and nearly impossible to use for hand-held shots.
Mr. Nolan dismisses these concerns. "There was a huge irony that we were told it would be too difficult to shoot a Hollywood movie on IMAX when we had this gigantic camera department, grips, electric, hundreds of people working for us," says the director, whose agreement to direct "The Dark Knight" was contingent on Warner Bros. allowing him to shoot the film in IMAX. "These were cameras that had been to the top of Mount Everest, to the bottom of the ocean and into outer space, but people thought we couldn't make a feature film. It was absurd."
In December, Paramount made the unconventional decision to release "Ghost Protocol" exclusively in IMAX theaters five days before broadening its release. The move, which Mr. Bird advocated, helped catapult the film to the No. 1 spot when it went wide the following week on the way to becoming the highest-grossing "Mission Impossible" installment yet.
For Mr. Bird, the point is that the typical multiplex theater lacks excitement. When he was young, he says "if you wanted to see a brand new movie, the only way was to see it perfectly projected in a really big theater with the bulb turned all the way up and an attentive projectionist."
Theaters need all the help they can get: Last year, movie attendance shrank 4% to 1.3 billion admissions, the lowest level in 16 years. Box office revenues declined at the same rate, to $10.2 billion.
It isn't the first time Hollywood has responded to a downturn by going big. In the 1950s and 60s, studios turned to large format movies, such as VistaVision and Panavision, to get people back into theaters amid an explosion in television ownership. For director Martin Scorsese, who released the Rolling Stones concert film "Shine a Light" in IMAX in 2008, large-format screens are "a natural progression" for ardent moviegoers. "I will never forget seeing 'The Searchers' in VistaVision," says Mr. Scorsese, referring to John Ford's classic Western, and its widescreen, panoramic image. "It was a sacred feeling, seeing that movie on that big screen."
That's what the filmmakers want the theaters to do for them. "It's 'go big or stay home,'" says "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld, "especially if you are going to go to a theater where the subwoofers are broken, the speakers are humming and the projection is too dark."
IMAX is under pressure to keep its hot streak going. The company, which went public in 1994 a year after a leveraged buyout, saw its stock perk up in 2010 when "Avatar" filled theaters, and hit an all-time high last June before falling when some movies, many in 3-D, underperformed. Investors' expectations this summer are high. IMAX finally turned a profit in 2009, though the extent of those profits has varied since then, with volatile box office swings and the company aggressively expanding its screens.
Despite its share in "Avatar's" success, IMAX's fortunes aren't tied to the success of 3-D, which has gotten mixed reviews from audiences so far. IMAX also has begun to distance itself from animated movies, which weren't as popular among its key audience in the U.S., the young male moviegoers known as fanboys.
A group of Canadian filmmakers developed the technology for IMAX—shorthand for "maximum image" in the late 1960s. The company's first effort, "Tiger Child," a 17-minute demonstration film, premiered at the 1970 Japanese pop-culture convention Expo.
Until a decade ago, the company was focused largely on movies like "Mission to Mir," "China: The Panda Adventure" and 2001's "NSync: Bigger than Live." Many were 40-minute shorts. The museums would build and own the theaters and pay for IMAX technology. IMAX, in turn, would provide the movies, and they would split the take from ticket sales—at premium prices. But the market for nature and science documentaries at museums was limited.
What began to change was that IMAX figured out how studios could more cheaply convert existing movies into an IMAX format—no special cameras needed.
In 2002, IMAX switched gears by rereleasing the 1995 film "Apollo 13." It generated publicity for the company but was a commercial flop. The following year, Warner Bros. released "Matrix Revolutions" in IMAX and traditional theaters simultaneously, marking IMAX's first "day-and-date" deal. The 48 IMAX theaters in North America showing the movie grossed $800,000 on the first day it was released, a company record.
Still, the company struggled with "the proverbial chicken-and-egg situation," says Richard Gelfond, its chief executive officer. IMAX couldn't gain access to big commercial movies because it didn't have enough screens for studios to justify the conversion costs—about $30,000 per print—and it couldn't sell screens to exhibitors because studios weren't making movies for IMAX.
Finally, the transition from film to digital in moviemaking lowered the costs for studios to convert their films to IMAX proportions. Theaters began retrofitting existing theaters, with IMAX providing the equipment. In 2007, there were 179 non-museum IMAX screens world-wide; by the end of 2011 there were 517. Although the theaters own the space, IMAX controls the network, booking the movies.
Theater owners may be doing business with IMAX, but they are also trying to get into the game themselves. Regal, which has about 70 IMAX locations, for example, launched its own "RPX"—or "Regal Premium Experience" which seeks to mirror the IMAX format—in 2010, and now has 17 theaters, planning to double that number by the end of the year. AMC and Carmike have followed suit with their own versions. Exhibitors say they're not trying to compete with IMAX but merely supplement it in areas where building IMAX theaters doesn't make sense.
But they don't have IMAX's brand recognition, or its technology. Movies projected on IMAX film, which is 70mm across, with 15 "perfs"—exhibitor-speak for "perforations"—can hold 10 times more image information than 35mm film, which has just four perfs. As a result, IMAX film creates an image that's cleaner and more high-resolution than what's found in standard films. IMAX's patented "DMR" conversion system takes films shot digitally or using 35mm film and enhances their resolution so that they can be projected onto IMAX's huge screens, reducing graininess.
Digital technology has given IMAX a huge boost, allowing theater chains to cheaply convert existing spaces into IMAX-branded theaters, albeit with smaller screens than those seen at museums and legacy film theaters. This has occasioned some complaints: In 2009, comedian Aziz Ansari wrote a blog post about his experience seeing "Star Trek" at the AMC IMAX theater in Burbank, which had a screen size of just 28 by 58 feet, significantly smaller than the traditional IMAX theater (New York's Lincoln Square IMAX, which opened in 1994, is 76 by 97).
"IMAX is whoring out their name and trying to trick people," wrote Mr. Ansari on his blog, before urging his then-25,000 Twitter followers to boycott its theaters. Shortly thereafter, one aggrieved viewer started a website called LIEmax.com with a map of "real" and "fake" IMAX theaters.
IMAX's Mr. Gelfond cites a study that said 98% of audience members liked the new theaters, and added that screen size was just one component of the overall IMAX experience. This year, IMAX plans to screen about two dozen movies, which it chooses itself, raising the risk that it could pick some duds. In March, the company was able to swap Disney's bombing "John Carter" with "The Hunger Games" at 270 of its digital theaters. But the chain was unable to maximize the potential of "The Hunger Games" because it had already committed to show "The Wrath of the Titans" the following week.
The company considers this a high-class problem. "The great part about our business is that we are now at a place where we are not able to accommodate all the movies that wanted to be in our network," says Greg Foster, IMAX's chairman of filmed entertainment. "I can tell you, a few years ago that was not the case." Indeed, the company last year decided to start doing short weeklong runs, as it did in the case of "The Hunger Games," "The Lorax" and the coming film "The Avengers."
Mr. Foster says its now possible for the company to be more nimble in capitalizing on hot releases, and the growth of its network and success with audiences has given it more clout with studios. "We are not a rounding error anymore," he says.
Case in point: When Lionsgate Motion Picture Group Co-chairman Rob Friedman first approached IMAX last year about "The Hunger Games," the company's theaters were already committed to "John Carter," Disney's $250 million 3-D saga. In January, Mr. Friedman says, IMAX called to say it had found an opening. The company shoehorned in "The Hunger Games" at 270 digital theaters when it opened in March, limiting "John Carter" to two weeks, though it stayed in the theaters using film.
"What happened was they saw the opportunity to counterprogram with 'Hunger Games,' which was a different audience than 'John Carter,'" says Mr. Friedman. On April 27, the film will return to IMAX digital theaters for another weeklong run, bumping "Wrath of the Titans," which has already been in IMAX theaters for a month.
IMAX hasn't yet committed to films for August and September, because it wants to give "The Dark Knight Rises" more time to run. That film, will be screened at 100 of IMAX's largest locations in traditional film format, requiring exhibitors to reconvert from digital to film at their own expense.
For this unusual mandate, thank that old IMAX fan, Mr. Nolan the director. "I felt if we could have one of those in every major city, we could justify the difficulty of going to a lot of trouble to shoot this way," he says. "You will see a crisper image."
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