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Editorial: Imax's Welcome Change

 

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Posted 5/26/09. Originally published in LF Examiner, May 2009.

Imax's Welcome Change

[Update: The first paragraph of this page was changed on 5/27/09 to remove an incorrect reference to Imax changing its branding policy.] 

 

An editorial by James Hyder, Editor/Publisher

 

Just as this issue was going to press, Imax Corporation CEO Richard Gelfond announced that the company would be "doing something" to inform customers about its retrofitted multiplex theaters. (See article here.) As a result, this editorial now takes on a significantly different tone and message than the one I would have written a day earlier.

In agreeing to provide customers with information about the type of IMAX theater they are entering, Gelfond is finally doing what virtually everyone in the industry has been asking him to do for nearly a year. As we reported last October, Imax’s largest multiplex partners, AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment Group, had originally wanted their new theaters branded as IMAX Digital. Giant Screen Cinema Association chair Toby Mensforth told Gelfond at the association’s conference last fall that institutional theaters also wanted some way of differentiating their theaters from the multiplexes. 

Despite this near universal agreement among Imax’s customer base, management insisted on branding all theaters simply as “IMAX,” regardless of size or format. The company continued the rollout of its digital systems through 2008 and early 2009, issuing press releases that spoke about massive screens and theater geometry, encouraging the public to believe that the dozens of new theaters springing up in multiplexes were no different than the classic, purpose-built giant-screen theaters they had visited in museums when they were kids. 

Last October, I warned against Imax’s hubris in assuming that paying customers could be fooled this way indefinitely. I’ll admit that I was somewhat dismayed when, thanks to credulous local media reports at most digital openings that did little more than parrot Imax press releases, the public remained essentially silent for ten months. Only a few voices rose up to object to the smaller theaters, and not even the high profile of Roger Ebert’s column was able to break the silence.

However, I am not surprised that it was Star Trek that broke the logjam. Say what you will about Trekkers, they know their technology, whether it’s 23rd century transporters, 21st century social networks, or 20th century film formats. More so than fans of Watchmen, apparently, Star Trek fans have been to science centers and have seen movies in giant-screen IMAX theaters. They wanted to see Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty on six-story screens, so it’s no surprise that at least one of them would let the others know when the experience didn’t live up to his expectations. It just happened that that one was Aziz Ansari, an actor/comedian with 25,000 Twitter followers. (Since the controversy broke out, Ansari has gained nearly 7,000 followers.) 

As Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein said in his May 13 article, “If nothing else, this is citizen journalism at its best. Ansari’s blog post touched a populist nerve, getting picked up everywhere in the blogosphere, where Ansari was treated as a Seymour Hersh-style investigative hero.”

Ansari, and most of those who spoke out after him, rightly saw that the issue was not smaller screens per se, but communication. Customers need to know what they’re getting before they plunk down their cash, and all of Gelfond’s analogies to BMWs and 767s couldn’t mask that simple fact.

Since LF Examiner was the source for most of the facts Ansari used in his blog, you might assume I now feel vindicated, proud, even triumphant. But I don’t. I’m saddened by the damage this fiasco has done to the reputation of Imax Corporation and by extension, the hundreds of theaters, mostly institutional, that built that reputation over the past 40 years.

I’m also concerned about how the company intends to correct the situation: whether it will own up to having been mistaken and be more direct and open with the public in future, or if it will merely attempt to put a PR band-aid over the problem in the hope that the immediate furor will die down and things will go back to normal. 

I have been a fan of the IMAX format since before I started in the industry 25 years ago. I have counted some of the founders of the company as my friends, and remain friendly with many present and former Imax employees. As I have said frequently, I have nothing against Imax itself, and wish it only success.

However, in the past several years Imax’s upper management has demonstrated an arrogance and unwillingness to consider the views of its stakeholders that has led directly to the mess it finds itself in now. LF Examiner has seen this arrogance in the company’s repeated charges of bias for merely reporting facts that weren’t spun to Imax’s liking. This “blaming the messenger” cost us 40 Imax subscriptions three years ago, simply for predicting that digital 3D “could signal the beginning of the end of Imax Corporation’s near exclusive hold on 3D,” and pointing out that multiplex operators who wanted 3D capability could buy digital projectors for one tenth the price that Imax was then charging for the MPX system. 

And the world saw that arrogance during the fuss Ansari set off in the company’s flustered statements about “patented screen geometry” and the supposed 98% positive market research, all of which were meant to dismiss the critics and assure the masses that the multiplex theaters were every bit as good as the giant-screen houses. It reminded me of the joke in which a husband, caught in bed with another woman, asks his wife, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

At the risk of appearing cynical, although I may hope for a major change in Imax’s approach toward both its theater clients and the ticket-buying public, I will not be surprised if management ends up treating this incident as just another public relations problem to be spun.

What do I think Imax should do? In my opinion, the first thing Gelfond and chairman Bradley Wechsler should do is apologize to the giant-screen industry, to AMC and Regal, and to the public. As a journalist, my mistakes are regularly pointed out to me. I learned shortly after starting to publish 12 years ago that, as embarrassing as it may be, owning up to your mistakes and apologizing is a beneficial exercise that usually improves you and your reputation. 

Gelfond and Wechsler made a huge mistake that virtually the entire industry warned them against, one that has cost them and their company dearly, and that has also harmed the reputations of many other stakeholders. A sincere apology on their part would, I believe, go a long way toward easing the tensions and reducing the ill will that their policies have created in the past year.

The next step is to rebrand the digital and MPX screens, not only on the basis of market research, but in open consultation with the GSCA, multiplex chains, and other IMAX theater operators. The goal should be a rebranding effort that strengthens the damaged reputations of the GT and SR venues, while honestly extolling the benefits of the smaller systems, without overselling them.

In the meantime, Imax should make the distinctions between the various theater types very clear in all press releases and other publicity materials. This will not be a simple task, but it is essential if the company wants to regain the public’s trust.

If Imax does not take these steps, or merely makes perfunctory or cosmetic efforts to address the issues, I expect the controversy to reignite on June 24, the day that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opens. [Warning: the site plays music immediately.] I don’t know if Transformers fans are as numerous as Star Trek fans, but I suspect they are at least as rabid. And thanks to Imax publicity, every one of them knows that director Michael Bay filmed three sequences in the movie with IMAX cameras.

However, as I pointed out last October, the differences between the 15/70 and the 35mm scenes — the expansion to the full 1.33 screen height and the enhanced resolution — will be virtually invisible in the IMAX digital theaters. The outrage that Ansari stirred up in May will be like a firecracker compared to the nuclear blast that Transformers fans could ignite in June when they storm out of IMAX digital theaters asking, “Where’s the IMAX?”

How best to limit this potential disaster? I am no marketing expert, but I think a good start would be soft-pedaling the fact of the IMAX scenes, and issuing publicity especially oriented to Transformer fan sites that clearly identifies GT and SR theaters as the best ones for hardcore fans. Will this hurt the box office at the digital screens? Yes. For this film. But it could limit an even harsher backlash that might cost Imax, AMC, and Regal much more than May’s kerfuffle. 

Looking forward, Imax has other issues to confront. In the past month, Regal and AMC have both signed deals with Sony to install as many as 10,000 4K projectors throughout their circuits. Once that process is under way, IMAX digital houses could become the lowest-resolution systems in some theaters. How will Imax or the theater chains maintain the aura of a premium experience, and charge accordingly, when every other screen is displaying more than twice as many pixels? 

Although Imax has said its digital system is “projector agnostic,” it had earlier rejected the Sony system for undisclosed technical reasons. Its engineers may now be working to fit the Sony projector with its “image enhancement engine” and the other admirable technical advances they have incorporated into the current Christie DLP-based system. But how soon will a new system be ready? And having spent tens of millions of dollars to install hundreds of 2K+ systems, will the company be able to afford to upgrade them before 4K systems replace most 35mm projectors in 2012? 

In conclusion, I will repeat what I have said before: I understand and support Imax’s need to expand its market with digital systems in multiplexes. Many people, including most institutional theater representatives I’ve spoken to, Aziz Ansari, and thousands of members of the movie-going public, would have had no objection if Imax had labeled it IMAX Digital™ or IMAX Multiplex™, or something similar. We would have accepted it as a variation on the original giant-screen IMAX Experience, sharing certain characteristics of the classic brand, much as a driving enthusiast who can’t afford a BMW 7-series car willingly pays substantially less to own a 3-series. 

Imax has the opportunity to redeem itself by changing its attitude and behavior towards its clients, stakeholders, and the public. I sincerely hope it does so in good faith.


 

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