IMAX getting bigger, more profitable - Omaha.com
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Customers wear 3D glasses to watch a film at the BFI IMAX cinema in London.(CHRIS RATCLIFFE / BLOOMBERG)


IMAX getting bigger, more profitable
Column by Bob Fischbach
World-Herald Staff Writer


Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford had to talk his date into seeing the re-release of Steven Spielberg's “Jurassic Park” in IMAX 3D last month.

“She thought it would be boring, because she's seen it several times,” Crawford said.

She wasn't bored. In fact, the sense of realism so frightened her that she had to take off the 3D glasses in some spots.

“I'm familiar with the movie in 2D,” Crawford said. “But there was a visceral feeling to this I'd never experienced. It was so real, I was left reeling.”

A scene in which a young girl falls from an air duct and a raptor snaps at her gave Crawford the sense that he could reach out and touch the nose of the dinosaur.

IMAX is coming into its own, staking out a bigger and bigger share of the box-office take. And much of that take is just ahead in the lucrative summer movie months, May through August, when the action movies that define IMAX's value dominate at the multiplex.

Summer's tentpole movies all will be shown in IMAX: the sequels for “Iron Man” (opening Friday), “Star Trek,” “Fast & Furious,” “Despicable Me” and “300,” plus new action titles such as “Man of Steel,” “After Earth,” “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim” and “Elysium.”

In just six months, from Oct. 1, 2012, to March 31, 2013, the number of movie theaters worldwide that have an IMAX screen jumped from 583 to 738.

That rapid rise comes on the heels of proved financial results. While 2012 box office receipts overall rose 12 percent, they were up 50 percent for IMAX releases.

Of course, you can chalk up part of that increase to more movies being released in the IMAX format (31 in 2012, compared to 25 in 2011 and 16 in 2010), and more screens to show them on.

But there's no question that IMAX is growing in popularity, despite premium ticket prices — $14.75 for a Friday night prime-time seat at Oak View, versus $9.75 for a regular 2D showing. (Bargain price: $10.50 weekdays, daytime.)

An extra-large screen defines the IMAX experience. Seating placed closer to the screen creates a sense that the audience is almost surrounded, immersed in what's happening up there.

The projection system also is unique. Two projectors run simultaneously to display the film. For a 2D movie, they increase brightness and contrast, adding to the crispness of the picture. For 3D, one projector is for the left eye and one is for the right, intensifying the 3D effect.

The picture goes through a process called digital media remastering to enhance its quality and detail for the extra-large screens.

It's a bigger image to begin with. For example, using the perforations that run along a piece of movie film as a measure, one frame of a regular 35mm film is four perforations wide. IMAX is 15 perforations wide. When film is used rather than digital, it runs sideways past the lens rather than top to bottom.

The sound format also is unique. All speakers in an IMAX theater have the full spectrum of sound in every speaker, rather than a woofer here and a tweeter there, and their positioning and number is carefully calibrated.

“It's clear that the prime movie-going demographic wants to see the movie in the best way possible,” said Hugh Murray, IMAX senior vice president of film production. He spoke by phone last week from IMAX headquarters in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. “It's obviously about visual spectacle.”

It's hard to argue that there's a better way to see a summer-spectacle movie than on an IMAX screen.

IMAX, which had its premiere in Japan in 1970, was for many years the staple of museums and institutions, which primarily showed nature and science films. Most programming at the Henry Doorly Zoo's IMAX theater is an example.

But starting in 2003, IMAX began showing commercial movies. The number of titles available in IMAX is on the rise, including some older titles like “Titanic,” “Top Gun” and “Jurassic Park” that have been re-released in IMAX.

In 2008, the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” showed on 135 IMAX screens. In 2012, “The Dark Knight Rises” played on 550 IMAX screens.

Filmmakers have become more interested in IMAX cameras, a way to even further increase the visual spectacle of particular action scenes. “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” opening May 17, has 30 minutes filmed with IMAX cameras.

“For the first time, in a growing way, we're starting to get involved in the production of the films, becoming part of the planning for production,” Murray said. “That's growing quickly.”

And the research on how to get better goes on. Digital IMAX resolution will soon equal film for picture quality, Murray said.

Next up: powerful high-performance laser projectors that can light up those giant screens with image quality and brightness to match anything film ever produced, enhancing 3D.

IMAX laser projection got its first public theater demonstration in Burbank, Calif., last month.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title to the upcoming "Star Trek" movie.

Contact the writer: Bob Fischbach

bob.fischbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1269

Bob reviews movies and local theater productions and writes stories about those topics, as well.

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