Think Big... Get Small... Lose Brand...
CINEMA TECH                                                  FILM VS DIGITAL  SPECIALTY/BIGSCREEN FORMATS   FORUM


After decades of downgrading the movie experience, some exhibitors are now looking for reasons to charge more for what might be perceived as better presentation.  3D movies have proven profitable in a variety of venues, doing better than their 2D versions, giving the industry ideas for various ways to increase income, while paying for new digital projection equipment that will save the industry millions in the long run.

IMAX found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons after introducing, in their zeal to proliferate for profit, a shrink-to-fit digital version of itself, then refusing to differentiate it from their original 70mm film and multistory screens.  When it was announced that the company (under new ownership) planned an aggressive expansion by adapting existing multiplex rooms, I had to wonder how they could continue to maintain their "Think BIG" image.   IMAX seems to be repeating all the dicey decisions that killed the movie industry's most effective and influential novelty format: Cinerama.

Cinerama was actually based on the science of human vision.  Inventor Fred Waller's research experiments included simple devices that blocked either stereoptic or peripheral vision.  He discovered that it was peripheral vision that gave the true sensation of depth.  Human vision is wider than it is tall, so the Cinerama screen was designed at a 2.59:1 aspect ratio, curved to 146 degrees. 

Certainly the Cinerama screen was much bigger than people were used to in the 50s, but it wrapped around the front of the theatre, and that, (along with seven channel magnetic sound) is why it was immersive.  Imax, as originally devised, is simply BIG.

Cinerama used three strips of 35mm film, each of the 3 frames bigger than one frame of a regular 35mm feature.  It took up to five people to run a show.  Imax began with a single strip of 70mm film, run sideways, at very high speed.  Both processes are unwieldy and expensive in their original form.

Cinerama - a prestigious tourist attraction that people traveled many miles to see - broke boxoffice records around the world, in just a handful of theatres.  Reserved seat tickets, for no more than two shows a day, sold at higher than average prices.  1950s American popular culture began to ape Cinerama's household-word status by coming up with brand names ending in 'rama' - Foodarama, Flowerama, Bowlerama, Pinerama, even a stripper calling herself the Sinerama girl.  CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO, Panavision, Technirama, etc., were all subsequent attempts to approximate Cinerama's immersive widescreen picture (for much less money), but they didn't quite capture it. 

Shortly after Cinerama Inc. changed hands (are you beginning to see a parallel here?) the new owners scrapped the development of a laterally-fed system that would use one projector with a special lens (and thus eliminate Cinerama's join lines, while still putting out a superior wide image on a wraparound screen).  Instead, they switched to cheaper, conventional 70mm, and reduced the curve from 146 to 126 degrees. 

The flat picture did not optically match the curved screen, and lacked original Cinerama's detail and depth.  Instead of developing and evolving their high-quality brand, the new owners of Cinerama diluted its value with a much cheaper technology, but they still called it Cinerama, figuring people wouldn't notice the difference, or would think it was better, because even though the picture lost fidelity, the join lines were gone.  

You know what?  People did notice.  By the end of the sixties, Cinerama inc. eventually became nothing more than a releasing company for conventional films.  It wasn't the unwieldiness of the format that killed Cinerama, it was the new owners' financial decision to pass off a cheaper version as the same thing.  And where have we been seeing that kind of thing lately? 

Imax has so muddled their brand already... They had a 70mm alternate format, Omnimax (now called ImaxDome) - shot with special fish-eye lenses, intended to be shown (through the same kind of lens) inside a dome screen.  But, they have been routinely showing flat-produced Imax movies on curved dome screens, and fisheye Omnimax movies on flat Imax screens, as if there were no difference.   Each looks awful on the other, but they're presented as if they're all the same.  

Adding to the confusion are these acronyms for more variations Imax has introduced... DMR, (which means Digital Re-Mastering, so it should be DRM).   MPX refers to MultiPleX, but (according to Imax folks) only indicates situations where some reconstruction was done to convert two smaller plex rooms into one big one, and only using 70mm.   So it's supposed to mean original 70mm Imax film shoehorned into an existing multiplex.  Got that?

And when a movie is Digitally ReMastered to DMR, sometimes they pan/scan/crop out parts of a widescreen movie to fill more or all of the conventional square Imax screen.  So it's bigger, but, (like much of showbiz) it's really Not ALL There.  Sometimes the original aspect ratio is presented as is, sometimes not. 

Then came the latest variation, a 2K digital version in converted multiplex rooms.  It's not a situation where any reconstruction of the theatres, or reconfiguration of the seating was done, (although some of their PR leads you to believe so).  It's simply the biggest, or one of the biggest, screens in an existing multiplex, pushed up closer to the seats.  Usually a screen that has a bit wider aspect ratio than the big Imax square screens.   Still with me?   

And when Digital Imax is run on some screens that are "Squarer" and others that are somewhat wider... what's missing from the picture (or not) may vary as much as how they've handled the movies in a DMR conversion. 

These are all different animals, not just variations of the same breed, but they insist on calling it all Imax.  And with all those variations, there isn't much standardization of the brand, anymore, is there?  So how do you really define Imax?  Well now, they're hedging and backpedaling like crazy, claiming (their "Think BIG" slogan notwithstanding) that the true (new) meaning of Imax is "immersive."   But that's not always true in all these variations.

You can't sell it as all the same, because it is obviously NOT all the same.  They can't hide that, no matter how the Imax brass try to spin or deny it.   The public's on to them, and there's a backlash of ill will for that.  There is even a website were you can look up Imax locations and find if it's the original big screen or the little digital version, which has been called LIEmax.  

While the Imax brand still (sort of) represents some kind of bump in quality, size, etc, I thought maybe defining the variations in similar, but distinct terms (and varying the pricing accordingly) could work better than what they are doing now.  Maybe calling it DMax or DigiMax, for the digital variety, Imax 70 or MEGAMAX for the original 70mm format, keeping the Max in the name (adding 3D when applicable. 

There are SO MANY variations, it would take some thinking to clarify them, but by clearly defining what is obviously different, they might possibly have their cake and eat it too, keeping the brand value, while winning back some pissed-off patrons who've been fooled before.  I noticed a local cinema now advertises their full-size Imax screen as "original" Imax.  A little standardization wouldn't hurt, but...

Is it too late already?  Just as other studios came out with Cinerama imitations like CinemaScope, Panavision, VistaVision, Todd-AO, etc... the big multiplex chains now have their own versions of Imax's digital setup, essentially a way to charge a few extra bucks without having to pay Imax's licensing fees. 

Regal has RPX: Regal Premium Experience, CineMark has XD: Extreme Digital, and AMC has ETX, for Enhanced Theatre Experience.  One would imagine it was pretty darn close to AMC's MiniMax setup.  And having seen both IMAX and ETX at Century City, I'd have to say that it's pretty much six of one against a half-dozen of the other. 

Imax has typically emphasized height over width.  In original Imax venues, the screen starts well below the first row of seats and rises many feet higher.  The top row of seats is typically only halfway to the top of the screen.  Imax has reached a point where it sometimes looks like their screens are taller than they are wide ("ahemCityWalkcough").  

Imax seems to have ignored the fact that that human vision is much wider than it is tall.  Imax's website has actually belittled traditional widescreen movies with a claim that such movies (they specifically refer to CinemaScope) are cropped from their original height as shot in a camera.  This is wrong.  2.35-2.40 movies, known simply as "Scope" have always used the FULL height of a standard 35mm film frame.  The wide image is squeezed by an anamorphic lens to fit in the film frame and unsqueezed by the same kind of lens to show it.  You'd think that a film focused company would know this. 

What they should say is that standard movies, (known as "Flat") shot at 1.85 or anything wider than 1.33, are cropped from the old 35mm frame, but even that is irrelevant because movies are shot and projected digitally now.  Standard 70mm movies used full frame height as well, as that frame was much wider than 35mm.  Imax originally turned 70mm film sideways, but inexplicably used a much more narrow aspect ratio, (almost as square as your first TV).  

Imax's claim that previous widescreen movies (Scope or Flat) were eliminating something you needed to see is not only wrong, it's an insult to all the directors and cinematographers who carefully composed and shot their movies in either widescreen format. 

Imax is really throwing stones from a glass booth when they claim traditional widescreen movies are somehow leaving something out - especially since part of their "DMR" process of converting a movie to Imax has very often involved cropping off the sides of a wider movie (much like the old Pan and Scan process chopped off widescreen movies for 4x3 televisions) to fit their squarish screens!   They also write of their newer curved screens as if they invented it, ignoring the historical fact of Cinerama and the curved/widescreen revolution that followed it.   Original Imax screens were - and still are - basically flat. 

I find it funny when people complain that the smaller digital Imax screens in a multiplex lack the original's height, because the wider the screen ratio is, the more it approaches the natural field of human vision.  So, though it's nowhere near wide enough to be immersive, I have no complaints at all about the multiplex version of Imax screens being wider than the multi-story 70mm originals.  It's just not wide enough to be as panoramic as they like to claim.  If you look up the word Panorama, you'll find the vast majority of images it brings up as examples are MANY times wider than they are high.  Imax isn't even twice as wide as its height, ergo, NOT panoramic.

Today's newer multiplexes were ALREADY imitating Imax by emphasizing height over width.  They really want to claim "wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling" screens, but these screens typically have the not-so-wide dimensions of standard 1.85:1 movies, with a slight curve, making them look more like 1.66:1.  The problem is, some movies are created wider than others, so today's plexes use top-masking, which makes widescreen movies SMALLER than standard films - the exact opposite of how it is supposed to be...  Widescreen is supposed to be panoramic, not letterboxed.

Example: The AMC Century City, (where their converted Imax screen is only marginally bigger than the standard screen in an identical size room).  You enter to find the full screen exposed, from the commercials through the trailers, but if you're there for a widescreen picture, when the feature starts, the top masking comes down, and you are watching a letterboxed image, just like on TV at home.  And for my money, I'd rather stay at home, and spend the money on a BluRay.

ArcLight's makeover of a Pacific plex in Pasadena features square-ish, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling screens, that (just like digital Imax) are waaay too close to the seats, so that even in the back rows, you feel like the picture is "up in your face."   Like any plex, (and many exhibitors) the image is rather fuzzy and not very bright).  But it is BIG, and that's all those folks seem to understand. 

To me, all of today's alternate screen players are missing the fundamental element also missing from most standard cinema screens: They are not very wide.  It amazes me that today's exhibitor industry execs do not realize the evidence of their own eyes.  Stare straight ahead, then glance left to right, and notice how much wider human vision is than it is tall

What could really do the trick is to go back and take the essence of Cinerama's presentation - the wide, panoramic wraparound screen.  Imagine an Imax screen that wraps around the front of the room.  Now that's immersive.  It doesn't need to be ten stories high. 

Recent developments with new installations seem to indicate that Imax is now widening their scope literally as well as figuratively, as the apparent new standard turning up is a screen that's definitely wider than their squarish originals.  (One new Imax bigscreen is reportedly twice as wide as it is tall, with a curve that makes it seem less so)  This is a step in the right direction, especially if they want to keep claiming a "panoramic" experience.  We also see fewer instances of Imax's DMR adaptation chopping off the sides of widescreen pictures, apparently because directors are being allowed to choose whether or not they want their vision cropped to fill Imax's screen height. 

Unfortunately Imax seems so obsessed with height that they refuse to use masking for widescreen movies, leaving the unused top and bottom of the screen exposed, which looks very unprofessional.  The majority of "Imax Experience" versions of recent movies are shown in widescreen, so it's become very common to see this.   An irony here is that current movie screens are again reflecting the shape of current TV screens, and when widescreen movies are shown without masking, it looks a lot like movies letterboxed on TV.  Movies are supposed to offer a superior experience. 

The purpose of masking in the first place is to tailor the screen to match the dimensions of the movie.  When unused screen area is left exposed, people have typically wondered why.  Remember the controversy of letterbox movies (full original image) vs "full screen" (cropped to fit square TVs) on home video?  Enough people disliked seeing empty space on their home screens that the homevid industry routinely cropped them off for home viewers - much like Imax did in their earliest DMR feature conversions.

Also lacking from Imax has been the hundreds of details of Cinerama's showmanship that made the experience so special that every showing was a grand and memorable event.  Most of today's cinemas have no idea how to do that.  Commercials, widescreen movies letterboxed on the screen?  That's not a Movie experience.  It's more like a big television.

Cinerama began with all the standard aspects of Roadshow presentation, and elevated it even higher.  Beginning with the fact that after you were welcomed by a tuxedo-clad manager, and handed a souvenir book about the feature, you certainly didn't walk into a Cinerama theatre and see a bare screen or advertising, nor was any part of the screen left blank during the movie.  You walked in and saw a beautiful curtain that didn't reveal the screen until the feature began, and it was a most impressive revelation. 

Did I mention that a digital, Cinerama-like, seamless, curved, panoramic widescreen format was already in development ten years ago?  That a successful Hollywood director shot a demo movie in that process?  Or that the idea of filling a deep curved Cinerama screen with a "regular" picture without compromising optical issues is being considered as you read this?

If old three-strip Cinerama movies can be digitally stretched into a curved screen "smilebox" recreation for home video, and homevid projectors can adjust for keystoning, why can't a similar formula correct the geometric picture distortion from projecting a flat image onto a curved screen at a sharp throw angle?  There is some hope for the new laser projectors being planned for both Imax and standard projection.  At least we hear the picture will be brighter.  We'll see...

- Garan Grey

For the best comprehensive info on Cinerama, see American Widescreen Museum