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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

beware phony IMAX screens

I’ve been telling my friends in New York City for months now: Don’t pay extra for any IMAX showings unless it’s at the AMC Lincoln Square, which is the only genuine IMAX screen in NYC. Even the one at the American Museum of Natural History — which shows only nature documentaries, not blockbuster flicks — is retrofitted from what was clearly not even originally a movie theater, just an auditorium.

But retrofitting is precisely what regular multiplexes have been doing, with the full complicity of IMAX. The first few rows of seats get removed, the screen gets moved forward, the sound is beefed up… but it ain’t anything near the experience that IMAX spent decades developing. Generations of schoolkids have now been primed by museum visits and those aforementioned nature documentaries to understand that IMAX means “big-ass screen that is in your face,” thanks to deeply raked theaters and 70mm projection onto screens taller than most buildings, not to mention “sound that will blow your eardrums out.” And that’s what people are expecting when they pay an extra five bucks — on top of already premium-priced multiplex tickets — in order to see Watchmen or Night at the Museum in what they’re told is IMAX.

But they’re not getting an IMAX experience. And fans are starting to revolt.

The revolt gathered steam when actor Aziz Ansari (he’s currently starring in the new NBC series Parks and Recreation) bitched on his blog — and rightly so — about having been seduced into paying extra for what he was expecting to be a genuinely IMAXified Star Trek and finding it was nothing of the sort. Ansari posted this comparison, which has since multipled all over the Web:

which is actually quite interesting to me because the illo compares that sole true IMAX screen in NYC with the ones at the theater where I first became aware of this bizarre retrofitting. (I remember wondering, when I saw those “IMAX coming soon!” signs at the AMC Empire in Times Square, where the hell they were going to put an IMAX screen. The thought that they could possible call IMAX something that could fit into its regular screening rooms never crossed my mind.)

Ansari continues:

If you don’t want the whole long story, I did some research online and found this article that explains it. Basically IMAX is whoring out their brand name and trying to trick people. These new “IMAX” theatres are really just nice digital screens with good sound, but they ARE NOT IMAX, in that they don’t have the huge 72 ft gigantic screen which people would expect. However, they still charge $5 more for tickets as they would for the regular IMAX

He is absolutely right.

The article he links to is this one, at the LFexaminer — turns out “LF” stands for “large format,” and this is an independent journal dedicate to huge-ass movies. It dates from last fall and features IMAX co-CEO Richard Gelfond pooh-poohing suggestions that moviegoers might be pissed off to find they are not getting a fuckin’ huge screen when they’re paying for IMAX. LFexaminer editor, James Hyder, writes:

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.

Bravo. Remember, Hyder is a professional watcher of large-format movie screens. He knows what he’s talking about. (Oh, and that illo turns out to come from this LFexaminer piece.)

And in the wake of Anzari’s outrage, IMAX is fighting back… or trying to. On May 13th, The Hollywood Reporter posted a piece with this headline “Imax seeks to repair blog complaint damage”:

Imax executives spent the better part of the morning during their investors day conference trumpeting how the “Imax experience” is more immersive than traditional cinema-going, rather than woo investors with their usual pep talk about how the current digital projection and joint-venture theatre rollout will restore profitability this year.

“We know there are risks we don’t see,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond conceded after being blind-sided Tuesday by Ansari’s comments on the blogosphere about shrinking Imax digital screens at the local multiplex.

It’s preposterous to suggest that IMAX was “blindsided” by Anzari’s complaint when Gelfond was responding to predictions of precisely such complaints back in October.

By May 19th, the headline at The Hollywood Reporter was this: “Imax: Screen size not important” and at Wired, it was “IMAX CEO: Screen Size Isn’t Everything.” If the IMAX people were hoping for the mostly male-dominated field of entertainment journalism to be subconsciously swayed by such an argument — oh, IMAX is about the experience, not the size of the screen! — they miscalculated. And here’s a reason to get more women covering the movie industry: no CEO could face an audience of press half comprise of women and get away with suggesting that size doesn’t matter. He’d have been laughed at.

Fans aren’t buying it. There’s a petition aimed at “the Management of AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment” demanding an immediate halt to this misleading marketing “if you want us to continue our patronage of your establishments.”

If IMAX genuinely believed the bullshit it’s peddling about the “experience” and the size of the screen not mattering, it would explain this at its Web site. It doesn’t. No distinction is made, for instance, between the Lincoln Square IMAX theater and the AMC Empire “IMAX” screens. Why hide it?

Really, it’s as if McDonald’s suddenly changed the compostion of its burgers and then, when diners complained, suddenly cried, “Hey, we never said our burgers were free of rat meat! It’s the experience of eating a McDonald’s meat-filled sandwich that matters, not what kind of meat is between the buns… which, our lawyers now require us to note, we never said weren’t made of soylent green.”


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