risky business

New Imax philosophy gets the big picture

Blockbusters aren't quite what they used to be. Sony Pictures proved that last weekend when "Spider-Man 3" vaulted above virtually all the standing boxoffice records to set a new opening-weekend bar of $151.1 million.

To reach that figure, Sony took over a record 4,252 theaters. Sure, a lot of screenings sold out. But in the era of the modern megaplex, if the 7:30 show sells out, there's probably another one at 8:20 or 9:55 that's available. It's the cinematic equivalent of fast food — step right up and your movie is served.

Except at Imax theaters, that is. As it happens, I happened to catch "Spider-Man" at the Desert Imax in Cathedral City, Calif., and it required some planning. Figuring that the evening shows would sell out, I swung by the theater to pick up tickets in the morning, then returned at 6:15 p.m. to stake out a position in line for the 7:30 show. (Not all Imax seats are created equal, and I was determined to sit top row, center.) The whole exercise carried with it a certain amount of nostalgia. When the era of modern-day blockbusters began in the 1970s with such movies as "The Exorcist" and "Star Wars," long lines regularly snaked around the stand-alone theaters hosting the latest hit movie. Staking out a place in those lines was as much a part of the whole experience as the movie itself.

Certainly, the "Spider-Man" fans who opted to lose themselves in the Imax large-format screens weren't complaining. Playing on 84 screens in North America and another 34 abroad, "Spidey" notched the largest Imax opening weekend ever: $6.3 million. It also set records for Imax's largest three-day domestic total, $4.8 million, and largest single day, when it took in $2.2 million on Friday.

And just as Peter Parker transforms himself into a superhero, Imax hailed the weekend as an example of just how much it has changed now that it regularly screens Hollywood fare in addition to its traditional documentaries.

"People used to come to our movies and stay until they turned 12 or 13. Then they would leave and not come back until they turned 30 and had become a parent, an aunt or an uncle," says Greg Foster, Imax Filmed Entertainment chairman and president. "The 12- to 34-year-olds were staying away."

Imax, under the leadership of co-chairman and co-CEOs Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wechsler, decided to change that pattern. It didn't abandon original documentary films, but now films produced by the Imax Corp. are shot in 3-D rather than 2-D, and instead of a Walter Cronkite, a Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks is more likely to serve as narrator.

Then Imax introduced its DMR — or digital remastering — technology that allows it to convert a 35mm live-action film into the Imax format. Universal Pictures' 2002 rerelease of "Apollo 13" became the first film to use the new process. "We now have the technology down to just 10 days to produce an Imax version (of a studio film)," Foster says.

Other studios — with Warners, Sony and Fox leading the charge — have embraced the so-called Imax experience. Warners has been particularly supportive, leading the way with the first day-and-date Imax releases with its "Matrix" movies.

As a result, Imax has reached out to broader audiences with such family-friendly bookings as "Happy Feet," the "Harry Potter" movies and the second and third "Spider-Man." It also has courted an edgier crowd with such films as the "Matrix" sequels and the recent Warners hit "300."

While such films fit squarely into circuits including Regal and AMC, which have installed Imax screens in their multiplexes, even the more traditional, museum-like settings where Imax used to play just its docus are getting into the act. Washington's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum screened "Spider-Man 3" alongside "Hurricane on the Bayou" and "Rover Mars" in its Imax theater.

In an era when movies are becoming just another aspect of mass merchandising, Imax — which has 295 screens in 42 countries, with about half of its screens in North America now playing Hollywood titles — is distinguishing itself by remaining a cut above. Its version of the latest Hollywood blockbuster is inevitably bigger, louder and more immersive. Modern Imax theaters might lack the baroque decor of the movie palaces of old, but they restore moviegoing's sense of occasion. And that's why Imax fans are so willing to stand in line for a sold-out show.

As a result, Foster says, "We're bringing in incremental moviegoers — those who are either seeing a movie for a second or third time or those people who wouldn't have seen it the first time around at all."

Imax might have raised its profile, but it has no intention of turning into anything as ubiquitous as Starbucks. "We don't want an Imax on every street corner," Foster says. "That would defeat its purpose."

Gregg Kilday can be reached at gkilday@hollywoodreporter.com.