Posted 9/15/08. Originally
published in LF Examiner, October 2008.
Gelfond: IMAX is not the "giant
Richard Gelfond, co-CEO of Imax
Corporation, told a meeting of IMAX theater operators and
filmmakers "we don't think of [the IMAX brand] as the giant
screen." Rather, he said, "it is the best immersive experience
on the planet."
Speaking to the Giant
Screen Cinema Association in New York City on Sept. 10, he went
on to say that although the 76x98-foot (23x30-meter) screen of the AMC
Lincoln Square IMAX Theater in which he was standing was
"phenomenal…it's not just this. It's the sound, it's the raking
of the seats, it's the color, it's the content…it's the way the images
are captured, it's the way they're projected, it's the sound system,
it's the sum of all parts."
This new position from the 40-year-old company that
has used the tagline "Think Big" for the last several years,
coincides with the rollout of its new digital projection system,
intended to be retrofitted into 35mm multiplex auditoriums. Imax has
signed deals for more than 170 digital theaters, about 50 of which are
expected to be installed by the end of the year. The screens in these
houses will be between 40 and 60 feet wide, averaging less than
one-third the area of the average film-based IMAX screen of 60 by 80
feet (18 by 24 meters).
The news was not well received by most of the 100
operators of IMAX film-based theaters attending the meeting. GSCA chair Toby
Mensforth, who oversees the Smithsonian
Institution's three IMAX theaters, told Gelfond that the company
had "grossly underestimated" the concerns of many of his
colleagues at IMAX theaters in museums and science centers. He asked
Gelfond if the company would reconsider branding the new screens, to
differentiate them from the larger, film-based venues.
Gelfond said he would listen to the industry's
concerns, but "the question of creating a different brand is really
off the table." The company's position is that all IMAX theaters,
regardless of format or screen size, provide "the IMAX
He said that in discussing the issue internally,
Imax execs had decided that branding the newer theaters as
"digital," with its connotations of newer and
"cooler," might create the perception that the older theaters
were "second class citizens." Gelfond went on to say that
"Your customers are going to know that your screen is bigger than
someone else's and when the consumer decides whether they want to go to
your theater or another theater, that'll be one of the factors they
In a separate session, Imax's executive VP of
theater development, Larry O'Reilly, said that digital system
Entertainment and Regal
Entertainment Group had initially asked for a separate digital
brand, but the company had talked them out of the idea.
After the meeting, giant-screen industry insiders
expressed their dissatisfaction with the news. Mark Bretherton,
CEO of Australia's LG IMAX
Theatre Sydney, told LF Examiner that Imax could have
characterized the digital system as "IMAX quality in a new setting.
Tell consumers that, meet their expectations, and they will be happy.
Tell them they will have an IMAX experience and then offer them
something below their expectations and they will feel cheated."
Another long-time theater manager, who asked not to
be identified, challenged the idea that the IMAX experience can be
divorced from giant screens. "If the size of the screen and the
resolution of the image are taken out of the equation, that leaves
stadium seating, six-channel surround sound, and the occasional 3D. By
these criteria, Real D and
Dolby are delivering the IMAX
Ed Lantz, an expert on digital planetariums
who spoke at the conference, said, "With regards to Imax's
marketing strategy, they have seemingly ignored the concerns of their
existing theater client base and [independent] producers by not clearly
differentiating the new digital systems from true 15/70…theaters,
which have far greater resolution than the new digital systems. This
disregard for existing stakeholders who essentially built the IMAX brand
over the last decades is a major PR blunder in my opinion, with
extensive moral, if not financial, repercussions."
Gelfond also confirmed what LFX had previously
speculated, that the IMAX digital system is proprietary, and that any
producer who wants to distribute films to those theaters will have to go
through Imax Corporation for special processing and, presumably,
permission. (This is in contrast to conventional digital cinema
projectors, which use open, non-proprietary standards.) Gelfond said
that the company had decided to allow productions "captured on
either 15/70 or 8/70 [film] and…less than an hour" to obtain that
processing at "minimal" cost.
Fred Ashman, producer and director of Proud
American, a 105-minute film shot in 15/70 and 35mm, told LFX,
"Imax is assuming full vertical market control of the digital
screens, and will unilaterally decide what movies get converted, played,
when, what the costs will be. This is very disturbing news for
filmmakers and theaters."
Full details of this an other stories, including
complete coverage of the GSCA conference, will appear in the October
edition of LF Examiner. To subscribe, click here.