Imax brand is larger than life


Every Hollywood hotshot hopes for a big opening weekend. Well, the openings can't get any bigger than they are on an Imax screen. Eight stories high, 120 feet wide, 70mm projection, plus digital surround sound and 3-D. It all adds up to Imax, the large-format film that was born in Mississauga, Ontario, in 1967 and now boasts a network of 290 theaters in 40 countries worldwide.

With roots in science, the Imax experience has more recently grown into a presentation format for mainstream filmmakers who want to create a larger-than-life experience.

Batman, Spider-Man and the armies of 2006's "300" are among the characters to take advantage of the big screen through the company's proprietary DMR reformatting technology.

"We love to showcase our movies in the unique and special environment that Imax has created," Warner Bros. president and COO Alan Horn says. "It's especially gratifying to see how the audience has turned out with such strength and enthusiasm to view our pictures at the Imax theaters, which is why our boxoffice has been so extraordinary with Imax relative to anything else."

"The Dark Knight," Warners' next installment of the Batman franchise, just pushed the Imax envelope farther with director Christopher Nolan filming four sequences using extremely high-resolution Imax cameras in the giant 15/70 film format. "You need people with a vision," Imax senior vp David Keighley says. "You could take an HD camera, but what happens in a few years when they switch to 4K projectors? With Imax camera output, you've got enough pixels to last for the next 20 years."

Hollywood has embraced Imax DMR with the realization that an Imax release, with its premium viewing experience, is an added revenue stream and brand extension. After 2004's "Spider-Man 2" was released in Imax six weeks after the theatrical release, Sony Pictures Releasing distribution president Rory Bruer saw that "it looked spectacular and was a completely different and immersive way to see the movie," making the decision to create an Imax 3-D "Spider-Man 3" simultaneous with the regular theatrical release a no-brainer.

"With Spider-Man being such a crown jewel of our studio, you want to make sure that you're looking at every opportunity to give it its due," Bruer says. "And Imax was another facet. We felt it would enhance the whole release and be something of added value."

Warners has had a significant role in furthering the release of its films in Imax DMR. Their Imax 3D release of 2004's "The Polar Express" was the first full-length Hollywood feature to be converted into Imax 3D and became the highest-grossing digitally remastered Imax release with $65 million made on fewer than 100 screens worldwide.

"I like the Imax approach because they eventize your film, and it becomes an extension of your 35mm boxoffice and does not cannibalize it," Warner Bros. Pictures domestic distribution president Dan Fellman says. "If you talk to some of our filmmakers like Zack Snyder or Chris Nolan or a producer like Joel Silver, they all share a common attachment to Imax. It gives your movie that extra edge: It must be good if it's Imax."

Not bad for a company founded by a trio of partners who invested $700 apiece to create a projector that could reproduce high-quality, big-screen images. The three -- Graeme Ferguson, Robert Kerr and Roman Kroitor -- had the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor when Imax debuted with "Tiger Child" during the world's fair Expo '70 at the Fuji Group Pavilion in Osaka, Japan. "Although the path to get here has been somewhat winding, yes, the medium as it exists now is more or less what we had in mind," says Ferguson, who noted that engineer William Shaw soon joined the co-founders.

"The most exciting thing about the Imax format is that it was future-proofed 40 years ago," Keighley says. "Because the Imax frame is nine times bigger than the 35mm frame, I can take an Imax movie shot 40 years ago and make it better looking than anything else shot."

Since its debut, Imax has made its name with museum installations, producing educational films to fuel that market. Today, even museums are playing Hollywood blockbusters in off hours in order to grow audiences. At the Smithsonian in Washington, 2006's "Night at the Museum" has been playing to a packed house. At the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, "Lewis & Clark" plays to schoolchildren in the daytime while "Spider-Man 3" wows the evening crowd.

"The 'Imax Experience' is a key component of our programming," says Diane Carlson of the Pacific Science Center, which reports anywhere from 850,000-1 million visitors a year at its Imax theater. "It's one of the highest-rated experiences in our facility. Depending on the year, from 55%-70% of the people who come to the Pacific Science Center experience an Imax film. They value the quality of a crystal clear, large image with incredible sound."

Imax has mainly gravitated toward family-friendly fare, but with Warners the company took a leap with "300." The first R-rated film to be mastered to Imax, it was a huge success, grossing $20 million in just more than four weeks on 84 screens worldwide.

"With '300' as representative, Imax grossed 300% of the industry average," AMC Theatres senior vp strategic development Frank Rash says. "By Week 4, that grew to over 450%. So it not only has earning power but staying power. And that's what we've experienced, not only for '300' but for each Imax film we've released. We've been very happy with the performance."

Rash says that Imax deserves a lot of credit for developing the DMR technology and selectively choosing commercial films. "They're targeting blockbuster films, intending to make them even bigger -- and they've been very successful at that."

What criteria do studio executives use to pick which films should be digitally remastered for Imax? "You have to keep your eyes and ears open and see what you feel would be appropriate," Bruer says. "It's such a visual and visceral experience in Imax that you want it to be the appropriate property that could really be accentuated."

Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder, who has shepherded into Imax 2002's "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," 2005's "Robots" and "Night at the Museum" (the latter of which grossed more than $15 million in 22 weeks), agrees. "The picture has to be big enough to handle the cost of the system," he says.

As more theater exhibitors add Imax screens, they are discovering synergies. "It benefits the overall complex to have the Imax screen," Cineplex executive vp Michael McCartney says. "The Imax screen performs better than any other screen playing the same picture. And what they've brought to the table (in terms of movies) has been a home run."

The future for Imax, like the rest of filmmaking, is digital. "What we're working on now is going from film projection to digital projection, planned for 2008," says Ferguson, who enthused about the possibility of a home Imax theater combined with interactivity. The popularity of Imax also is burgeoning overseas, particularly in Asia and South America, with recent deals to expand its reach in China, Chile, Venezuela, Russia, Poland and India.

"Imax is another angle of the prism," Horn says. "The quality is wonderful, and people get to experience our movies in another, very special way."   

History & milestones

1967: The Imax system has its roots in EXPO '67 in Montreal, Canada where multi-screen films were the hit of the fair. A small group of Canadian filmmakers/ entrepreneurs who had made some of those popular films, decided to design a new system using a single, powerful projector, rather than the cumbersome multiple projectors used at that time. The result: the Imax motion picture projection system, which would revolutionize giant-screen cinema.

1970-1973: Imax technology premiered at the Fuji Pavilion, EXPO '70 in Osaka, Japan. The first permanent Imax projection system was installed at Ontario Place's Cinesphere in Toronto in 1971. Imax Dome (OMNImax) debuted at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre in San Diego in 1973.

The Imax Experience premiered in its first theme park in 1983 at Disney's Epcot Center (left) and at its first tourist location in 1984, when it was installed at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Imax 3D system premiered at the Canada Pavilion, EXPO '86 in Vancouver, Canada.

1994: In June, Imax was listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, and this momentous year also marked the first multiplex installation when the groundbreaking Loews Imax Theatre in New York City was unveiled.

1997: Imax was awarded the sole Oscar for Scientific and Technical Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award recognized Imax's innovation in creating the world's best image capture and projection system as well as Imax's acceptance as part of the entertainment mainstream.

2002: In March, Imax announced Imax DMR, a proprietary technology that enabled conventional Hollywood blockbusters to be digitally re-mastered into Imax's format. The first Imax DMR movie was "Apollo 13: The Imax Experience," released in September.

2003: In March, Imax introduced the Imax MPX theater system. Imax MPX was specifically designed to enable multiplex operators to more cost effectively enter into the Imax theater business, by retrofitting an existing stadium seating auditorium or via an economical new build. On Nov. 5, "The Matrix Revolutions" became the first Hollywood film to be simultaneously released to Imax and conventional theaters.

2004: On Aug. 9, Imax announced that National Amusements, one of the largest theater operators in North America, signed an agreement to install four new Imax MPX theater systems in multiplexes in the United States. In November, Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Polar Express" (above) became the world's first major Hollywood event film to be released in Imax 3D. The film went on to become the highest grossing digitally remastered Imax release ever.

2005: In January, Imax announced the largest multiple theater deal in The People's Republic of China with Lark International Multimedia (LMM) for six MPX theater systems.

2006: In June, "Superman Returns: An Imax 3D Experience" became the world's first live-action Hollywood title to be released with select scenes converted into Imax 3D using Imax's proprietary live-action 2D to 3D digital conversion technology. In November, Imax announced two strategic initiatives to further advance its leadership in the entertainment industry: the pursuit of joint-venture relationships with exhibitors and the development of a digital projection system.

2007: In March, Imax entered a joint venture partnership with Regal Cinemas, Inc., a subsidiary of Regal Entertainment Group, the world's largest theater chain. The deal marked a significant first step in Imax's new strategy of entering joint ventures with key exhibitors to supplement the growth of the Imax theater network.