Studios are livin' large with Imax releases


Once the realm of awe-inspiring nature documentaries and travelogues, Imax movies have become a stamp of cool -- a status symbol that marks artistic achievement, a sizable buzz-generator and even a smart business move for a number of big-budget studio releases.

Studios have embraced Imax as a new release window that makes an event film more of an event, and the embrace has paid off: the 2006 Warner Bros. release "Superman Returns" raked in $31 million domestically at Imax theaters, which can be credited with pushing its domestic boxoffice past the crucial $200 million mark.

"Superman" director Bryan Singer is in good company, with other such visionary filmmakers as Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, Sam Raimi and the Wachowski brothers witnessing their work in the immersive and oversized Imax 3D format.

"I have a romantic view of cinema and what that experience should be like. The Imax experience is really what you always imagine going to your favorite movie should be," says Snyder, whose Warners release "300" got the Imax treatment.

Thanks to a proprietary Imax process called DMR, for digital remastering, films shot in standard formats like 35mm film can be transferred to Imax or Imax 3D for what many now feel is an incremental cost.

David Heyman, a producer of Warners' "Harry Potter" films, including the upcoming "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," admits he initially was skeptical of the enormity of Imax with regard to films not specifically shot for that display.

"I was reticent at first about how our makeup work and visual effects would stand up to that size, but the technology Imax has is incredible, and all the films have looked wonderful," he says.

Imax Filmed Entertainment chairman and president Greg Foster says that most filmmakers are quickly won over when they see their work in Imax. "Without fail, they comment on the unbelievable level of contrast. They can't believe how black the Imax black is," he says.

Working from data tapes in which every frame of a film is contained as a separate digital file, DMR allows the Imax digital artists and technical crew to remove any imperfections that might never show up at a multiplex but would be distractingly obvious on an Imax screen. When the film files are "clean," they are run through additional software tools to sharpen the image, and the reassembled film is rerecorded onto Imax film. At the same time, the elements of a film's sound -- dialogue, music and effects -- are rebalanced and "placed" to take advantage of Imax theaters' six-channel, fully uncompressed sound system.

"We take a film that's composed of hundreds of thousands of frames, pull it apart and then put it all back together without losing a frame," Imax senior vp film production Hugh Murray says.

The process has become efficient and streamlined over the past few years: When Universal's 1995 film "Apollo 13" was rereleased in an Imax version in 2002, the conversion took three months; this year, Sony's "Spider-Man 3" was converted in nine days.

"We used to meet with filmmakers three months before their film came out to see if we could get the gig," says Foster "Now we meet with filmmakers a year before they start shooting to see how we can best work together." Fox, Sony and Warners are studios that regularly take advantage of an Imax release for event films. Foster says studios on average see about a 5%-7% bump in boxoffice at Imax theaters, though that number has been as high as 20%.

And, while boxoffice totals remain the inarguable measure of success, filmmaker screenings of Imax versions have their own payoffs.

"I was sitting a couple of rows in front of Zack Snyder at the '300' screening," Murray says. "I kept looking back at him, and he was grinning ear to ear the whole way through. I knew well before the film was over that he loved seeing his film on an Imax screen."