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IMAX vs. LIEMAX

Two months ago, on my birthday, I decided to treat myself (and my wife) to see Watchmen opening day on a big-ass IMAX screen. Now, Watchmen wasn’t shot on IMAX like parts of The Dark Knight were (which we’ll get to later), but I’ve seen the IMAX blow-ups before, and they do a damn good job, so even being a letterboxed blow-up, I figured it was worth it to see it on a huge screen.

It turned out none of the IMAX theaters close to us were screening Watchmen, so we ended up driving nearly two hours to get to the closest one at the AMC 18 at Potomac Mills Mall. Sure, the tickets were about five bucks more than any other screen in the multiplex, but for IMAX, it would be worth it.

At least… that’s what I thought until we walked into the theater.

The theater was a regular crappy multiplex theater, with a screen that had been stretched a little bigger, enough to hit the top and bottom of the not-very tall auditorium. The seating wasn’t even stadium seating, but regular old flat-style seating (with a slight incline). To top it off, the floor was sticky with soda, and the seats were worn with age. How the hell do they get off passing this off as a “new” IMAX theater?

I was pissed. If we hadn’t just driven so far to get there, and had such a small window of time before the babysitter needed to be relieved, I would have left right then and gone to the Uptown (the biggest 70mm projection screen in Washington, DC, which at 32’x70’, might actually have been bigger).

A little research later, I find that this is a new initiative by IMAX — along with their partners AMC and Regal — as of late last year, to convert a number of smaller screens to a new digital IMAX experience (starting to be referred to as “LIEMAXamong those angered). Unfortunately, the new screens compare poorly to what I will refer to as the “Original” IMAX Experience.

Lincoln Square IMAX: 76x97 feet (23x30 meters). Empire 25 IMAX: 28x58 feet (8.5x18 meters)

Illustration via the LF Examiner

I wrote an initial angry (and unfortunately vitriolic) email to IMAX and got this form letter in response:

Thank you for your email. The IMAX Experience® is about more than just screen size or any one individual characteristic or feature. It is made possible through the combination of the world’s sharpest and brightest images, the clearest and most accurate sound available and IMAX’s immersive theatre geometry. And more fans around the world are able to see Hollywood blockbusters in IMAX today thanks to our growing network, our ground-breaking digital projection system and our IMAX DMR® (digital re-mastering) film conversion technology. For more information on The IMAX Experience, please visit www.imax.com.

…which is an interesting way to put it. According to that statement, in their minds, IMAX is a brand which stands for certain levels of quality. and not any one particular size of experience. According to that logic, they’re positioning themselves as a competitor to THX. A curious position to take from a company that still uses the tagline “THINK BIG” in its in-theater promotions.

Still, I felt like I had been pulled in for a bait & switch. IMAX has always meant a big immersive experience, a screen that takes up a huge chunk of your peripheral vision. To suddenly pretend the term IMAX means something different has the distinct feeling of dishonesty.

According to the LF Examiner, Richard Gelfond, co-CEO of Imax Corporation, told members of the Giant Screen Cinema Association that “we don’t think of [IMAX] as the giant screen.” Rather, he said, “it is the best immersive experience on the planet.” I don’t understand how they can justify it that way. Sure, the small screens still get the great sound system, but how exactly do you still call it an immersive experience when the screen is now only marginally larger than an average multiplex screen? My screening of Watchmen was hardly anything I’d call “immersive” — nothing on the order of The Dark Knight, surely.

The Dark Knight was the first big Hollywood movie to have shot portions of the film in IMAX — the actual 15-perf 70mm large-format film negative — and I saw it at the Airbus IMAX Theater at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Fortunately, like most of the IMAX theaters at Smithsonian Museums, the Airbus IMAX is an Original IMAX Experience. When the IMAX-shot portions of The Dark Knight came on screen, it filled the entire screen. It was an amazing experience, and I’d love to see more films shot on IMAX. But if I had gone to one of these new “IMAX nano” screens, they wouldn’t have even been able to show the entire film frame in the IMAX-shot portions. The screen isn’t even the correct shape — it’s not tall enough!

So, armed with more information and calmed down from my Watchmen experience, I wrote a new email in reply to IMAX, explaining that while the new smaller screens may be a great movie experience, it’s not what we’ve come to expect from IMAX, and should have a different name to avoid confusion. As he stated my thoughts more elegantly than I could, I quoted at length from James Hyder of the LF Examiner:

Let me make one thing clear: I am not opposed to digital projection in principle, or to the IMAX digital system in particular. I think the change to digital projection in the giant-screen world is inevitable. And I fully admit that the IMAX digital system is superior, in certain respects, to some other digital systems.
But I object when anyone claims that two patently different things are the same. Where I come from that’s known as “lying.” And call me naïve, but I don’t believe that any company whose business plan is based on deceiving its customers can succeed with that strategy for very long.
Imax Corporation, whose very name means “image maximum,” has spent four decades persuading the public that that name is synonymous with “big,” with giant screens, with an experience that is completely unlike that of conventional multiplex cinema.
If, for perfectly understandable business reasons, Imax now has to move into those smaller screens, let it distinguish this new product from the other screens in that theater, as a “premium multiplex experience,” as Sydney’s Mark Bretherton has suggested.
But expecting the ticket-buying public to believe that that experience is identical to one on a screen three or four times larger is insulting. People who have been to a true giant-screen theater will realize they have been misled, and will be disappointed, if not angry. Those who haven’t will wonder what the big deal about IMAX is, and will assume that any real giant-screen theater they come across in the future has nothing better to offer and perhaps never will have the real IMAX Experience.
By not distinguishing between two different products, Imax has degraded its brand with all customers. And far from protecting the film-based theaters from second-class status, it has lowered the public’s perception of all IMAX theaters. This has even led some theaters in the institutional segment to consider dropping the IMAX brand from their marketing and perhaps even their signage. When your oldest customers want to disassociate themselves from your brand, something is wrong.

If you, too, are upset by this change that cheapens The IMAX Experience, I encourage you to contact IMAX, AMC, and Regal with your concerns. I’m not calling for a boycott of IMAX altogether — hell, I just saw Star Trek in IMAX a few nights ago; but I made sure it was a real IMAX theater, not one of these subpar knockoffs that are IMAX in name only. Hopefully IMAX will realize their mistake before this kills their credibility for good.

You should check out my podcast about movie magic and VFX: The Optical.