IMAX 3-D digital films: Upsell illusion
I just went to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with the kids today at the Regal Thornton Place theater in IMAX 3-D digital. The total cost for the matinee show (11:40 am) was $40.50! That's $15.50 for me (instead of the usual $8.50 matinee price) and $12.50 for each kid.
Stepping into the IMAX auditorium eased my buyer's remorse somewhat. The screen reaches from floor to ceiling and wall to wall -- not as big as the curved Boeing IMAX theater at Seattle Center, but certainly bigger than the average screen.
When the film started, the sound system thundered like a freight train, and the image quality was sharp and vibrant. But then I noticed something that I'd noticed in two other IMAX films, Up and Night at the Museum 2:
The image didn't fill the entire screen.
Much like watching a 16:9 widescreen movie on a TV, there were black "bars" across the bottom and the top of the screen:
So, how is this much different than a regular movie image? Why am I paying almost twice as much just because the screen is large?
After doing a little research, I found that a firestorm erupted in May 2009 by actor/comedian Aziz Ansari after he saw the new Star Trek movie on a screen that he didn't consider to be of proper IMAX size. (Turns out, most people think this is around 72 feet high.)
According to IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond in a Wired article, the screen size isn't the only thing that makes IMAX what it is:
IMAX means the most immersive film experience on the planet. 3-D is going to be more obvious to you in IMAX. And in 2-D, IMAX means a special sound system. It means special treatment of the film so that when Star Trek is shown in an IMAX theater, it goes through a digital process where we up-res the movie so there's more brightness and more contrast.
And with the screen part of it: In all of these multiplexes, IMAX is the biggest screen. But it's not only screen size. There's something called "perceived screen size," which involves the relationship of the viewer to the screen. If you're in the first row, that screen is going to look a hell of a lot bigger to you than if you're in the 30th row. We typically take out the first four rows of seats in a theater and move the screen forward so it's a lot farther forward in an IMAX theater. Also, the screen goes floor to ceiling, wall to wall. By bringing a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen forward toward the audience, the viewer has the perception that the screen is larger than just the physical size.
I buy that there's a different process for converting a film for IMAX and that the sound system is better. But my beef is that the screen size is large but the movie isn't filling that screen. Well, then, I must be seeing a much better image resolution.
It turns out the image resolution might be only slightly better.
The IMAX digital film is created by using two Christie 2K resolution digital projectors. According to Wikipedia, "the two 2K images are projected over each other, producing an image that is potentially of a slightly higher resolution than common 2K digital cinema."
So, if the screen isn't larger, then you're not really getting much value for your expensive ticket -- just an image that is potentially of a slightly higher resolution. But I thought the reason for paying for an IMAX version of the film is so you can have the most immersive, amazing experience in a movie theater. Turns out it's not much different than going to the non-IMAX or 2D version of the film -- at least in some theaters.
Then what's going on here? Like many things in life, it's about money.
Let's take a look at The Dark Knight. $55 million of the $1 billion the film earned worldwide (18%) was from IMAX theaters. Without those "premium" tickets, the film takes in less money, the studio execs get smaller bonuses, the theater chains can't add more IMAX theaters, etc.
But the real crime with the smaller IMAX screens or the reduced projection size on a large screen is that the average moviegoer isn't even aware (at least consciously). They're paying extra for the IMAX brand -- and not really getting their money's worth.
So, as I see it IMAX has three problems (and to their credit, they're looking into fixing the branding problem now):
- Not all IMAX screens are equal in size.
- Not all IMAX screens are equal in resolution (digital vs. 70mm).
- The projection image size of the IMAX film doesn't always take up the entire screen size -- which brings us back to #1.
If you want to know which IMAX screens are the smaller size, here's a handy map:
View IMAX or LIEMAX? in a larger map
If you're interested in reading some other articles about this issue, see the following:
Roger Ebert's Q&A on IMAX (published before Aziz Ansari's blog)