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Formats, for better or worse, define the cinematic experience: how big is the screen? What’s the aspect ratio? Digital or projection? What’s the seating arrangement? With The Battle of the Formats, I’m gonna be addressing a number of different topics around the physical presentation of films to help you inform how to have the ultimate trip to the movies. For our first foray into format, we’re going to be looking at one of the greatest marketing ploys of the last century: IMAX.

IMAX is a lie, or at least, a white lie: it’s the homeopathic medicine of cinema. We associate it with bone-crunching, pristine sound; crystal-clear, beautiful image; and an overwhelming sense of scale. ‘Watch a movie, or be part of one’ we’re asked by the marketing department, and every time an epic hits our screens, we’re advised by every publication under the sun to seek it out in IMAX whatever the cost.

IMAX was developed in the latter 20th Century as both a shooting format, and a projection method. Because of the way IMAX film works, with the sprocket holes horizontal rather than vertical, it can display a much larger image than standard film. The system also has the power to shoot in far higher resolution than traditional 70mm – giving a much more detailed and beautiful picture. When we talk about 70mm (as we will in a later article), we usually say it has 2x the resolution of a standard 35mm picture – but IMAX makes this more like 10x.

In short, IMAX got real greedy.

By the end of 1998, there were 183 IMAX theatres in the world – with 75 extra already arranged to be built. In 2007, there were 299. The difference between 258 and 299 isn’t huge – but it’s testament to the difficulties of building such staggering temples to the motion picture. Yet, in 2017, there are an unbelievable 1,257. What happened?

In short, IMAX got real greedy. In 2008, The Dark Knight became the first blockbuster film to actually be made with IMAX cameras. The amount of money made from positive press coverage of the format was huge, so the company came up with a pretty Machiavellian idea: retrofit existing movie theatres to the IMAX brand. To do this, they removed the first front four rows of seats, moved the screen forward, and then installed the relevant IMAX technology. One problem: this diminishes almost everything that was present in the experience before.

The angles of seating in true IMAX theatres should also be steep to put the audience in the screen, whereas retrofitted auditoriums neglect these considerations.

Some things remain constant throughout the IMAX theatre oeuvre. The company soundproofs all their retrofit theatres, giving a much more enjoyable auditory experience; and the surround setup is mostly the same, although ‘IMAX with laser’ digital theatres have 12-channel surround sound (and 4k projection) whereas 6-channel would be your norm in both other types.

But the problems with the new format are hefty: because of physical limitations, the screen is usually only 22% of the size of a real IMAX theatre. The enlargement can be as little as 10 feet from what it was before, and the seating structure doesn’t match specifications of the original theatres. Seating in conventional theatres runs 8-12 screen heights, but true IMAX should only really be within a single screen height. The angles of seating in true IMAX theatres should also be steep (30 degrees in some places) to put the audience in the screen, whereas retrofitted auditoriums neglect these considerations.

The projection system is not the 15/70mm projection I talked about earlier. In fact, it’s only a measly 2k digital system. To put that into perspective, your average franchise cinema screen is now running at 4k! Although IMAX themselves claim that their system gives a better looking image than Sony’s 4k systems, that’s highly debatable: the ‘screen door’ effect is pretty damn noticeable on these retrofitted setups. And, added to that, you lose everything about film that made IMAX famous in the first place (stuff that we’ll consider in another article).

But the brand is super smart. They spent decades upon decades cultivating a following and a trusted household name

The digital conversion is even more of a cop-out when you consider IMAX film is estimated at 15-18k when projected. So a 2k system is just one ninth of true IMAX! Screen size ratios, to account for pre-existing buildings, are also altered: IMAX screens are, actually, pretty square (to fill the vision of cinemagoers). But retrofits are much more rectangular in the widescreen format – losing a ton of footage which amounts to around 40% of the extra stuff captured by the IMAX cameras.

But the brand is super smart. They spent decades upon decades cultivating a following and a trusted household name, before spewing low quality garbage onto the mass-market that the public then lapped up. The share price, predictably, shot through the roof. But, worst of all, they didn’t tell anybody. The name of every single one of these theatres is ‘IMAX’. The price to see a movie in true IMAX is the exact same as seeing it in lieMAX. When confronted, they claim that only 2% of the population will notice the difference.

It will be, for all intents and purposes, the perfect cinematic experience: true immersion

So, to see a movie or be part of one? For £18.50, I can go to the BFI IMAX in London: the biggest screen in Britain, standing at a whopping 26m X 20m. The footage I see (if it’s not a converted film) will be in resolution amounting to 18k; the screen will fill my vision with a crazy aspect ratio that’s almost unheard of; and I’ll be seated at an angle that minimises interference from anyone sitting around me or the walls of the theatre. It will be, for all intents and purposes, the perfect cinematic experience: true immersion. Or, for the same price (taking into account Odeon’s London weighting), I can go to the Kingston IMAX: a screen which is merely 15.24m X 7.23m. The screen will not fill my vision; I’ll be positioned at an angle which allows me to see the people around me, the floor, the ceiling, and the walls; 40% of the IMAX footage will be cut out of the screen; and the quality of the image will be low enough for me to notice the lines around the pixels when the screen is bright. It will just be like seeing a movie on a larger than normal screen. IMAX would like me to believe these to be the same thing. Their brand is built on a nostalgic lie.

James Witherspoon

Image: Gary Knight

James Witherspoon

Freelancer, UCL Law Student, and movie geek living the life in London! Can be found in the corner of some obscure coffee shop, muttering about how Christopher Nolan is overrated...

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