Screen Size Does Matter with IMAX Movies!

I have to start by saying that I’ve seen a number of films shown in the IMAX format, but have never seen a commercial feature film in this format. Since the screen is so much bigger than a traditional movie screen, I find it a bit fatiguing to watch IMAX movies, so the idea of watching one for two hours or more is a bit daunting.

Nonetheless, I am a definite fan of the format and while we’re all waiting for the new high-def 4K digital projection systems to arrive, IMAX is the biggest negative, highest resolution option you have to see a movie today. Or is it?
In the last few months IMAX Corporation has begun foisting a smaller-screen IMAX format on us with the popular name of “Realimax”. But it’s not real at all.
Or is it?

According to the company, IMAX is characterized by:
“IMAX’s revolutionary projection technology, consisting of film and digital projection systems, delivers crystal-clear images with a level of quality that is far above ordinary projection standards, in both IMAX and IMAX 3D.”
What you don’t see mentioned there is the screen size. The company talks about the screen geometry and the improved audio system in an IMAX theater, but does size matter?
First off, here’s how screen sizes compare for the three standard film projection resolutions:

35mm 70mm imax screensizes

As you can see, the IMAX screen is quite considerably bigger.
Or, perhaps not. Here’s another info graphic that nicely shows the difference between a full-on IMAX theater screen and a “realimax” retrofit of an existing multiplex theater to support the IMAX projection technology:

realimax imax screen size comparison

Definitely not the same. 
The problem here is that the entire premise of IMAX is that it’s an “immersive experience” that offers up considerably more viewing space than we can even process:

how imax works

In this figure the blue represents the viewer’s field of view, far less than the IMAX screen. This of course means that not only is your conscious viewing field the movie, but your peripheral vision is additionally engaged by the projection offering a very different experience than, by way of a dramatic counterexample, a TV screen and all the distractions behind and around it.
One recent film that’s grossed quite well in its “IMAX” release version is Star Trek. But the problem is that Star Trek wasn’t actually shot with the IMAX camera gear. IMAX, according to an IMAX engineer, is a 65mm film with an aspect ratio 1:1.37, 4x the size of VistaVision.  Star Trek, however, was shot in Cinemascope, which uses an anamorphic format that squeezes the image onto the film then undistorts it on projection back to its original 1:2.34 aspect ratio.
So how can Paramount and IMAX claim that they have IMAX versions of Star Trek?  For that matter, how can IMAX be polluting its brand by calling non-IMAX full size theaters “IMAX” theaters?  The answer?  Profits.

Film fans have been raising a ruckus about this whole topic for a few weeks now (see Google News on IMAX screen size) and finally IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond has come out with some explanations, though I think they’re pretty lame.
First off, he says that only 2% of the people that test-viewed films in the new smaller-screen IMAX format complained it wasn’t a comparable experience to the larger-screen IMAX format. I suggest to you, Mr. Gelfond, that you find a new market research firm pronto!
In a great example of completely denying that there’s a real problem, the company says that “they’re not yet sure what portion of their customers are actually unhappy [and are] planning a further customer survey and will decide what to do after they see the results.”  
In other words, shut up and leave us alone.
My suggestion to IMAX is to recognize that the reason that you are successful is that you’ve always defined the IMAX Experience as being a combination of projection, audio and screen that together offer up an extraordinarily immersive, amazing experience. Stick with that and instead of the smaller-screen IMAX theaters, offer up a “Powered by IMAX Technology” and a catchy slogan like “The Real Movie Experience, Powered by Digital IMAX” or similar.
Roger Ebert is thinking similarly when he suggestsCall it IMAX Lite, IMAX Junior, MiniMAX or IMAX 2.0″ as long as you don’t just call it IMAX and confuse the customer.
Otherwise we’ll learn to do what fans are already doing: calling up their local cineplex to ask if they have a “real” IMAX screen and theater or just have the enhanced projection system.
And that can’t be good for the brand.

6 comments on “Screen Size Does Matter with IMAX Movies!

  1. Whenever I go to a movie, I sit where the screen will fill my vision. In a true IMAX theater, that’s normally not a challenge. However, if I go to a theater promoting a screen as IMAX that isn’t the regular IMAX format, they won’t be meeting expectations. IMAX has created a set of expectations with their brand and they need to be very careful how they toy with it while trying to expand the number of people they expose to the experience at venues with reduced facilities.

    I have seen some commercial productions in IMAX and have decided it isn’t worth the extra cost. I didn’t see Start Trek in IMAX because I felt I could get the same experience by sitting in my usual place at a non-IMAX theater. Our theater house is a top-notch, high-tech facility, so it isn’t hard to get a high-end experience there. I can’t speak for smaller, lower-end theaters.

  2. I love IMAX. I saw Dark Knight twice in IMAX (although I really didn’t enjoy the actual film. I love to feel like i’m IN the movie (and the aerial views/scenery in The Dark Knight made me feel like i was hanging off of a building, i LOVED it.) I also have seen many documentaries on IMAX at museums and such, I really enjoy the monstrous sized screens.

    I also agree with the above poster, Alan when he talked about the IMAX screens that are smaller… but i still enjoy the IMAX format (maybe not for like a romantic comedy or something ridiculous, but it works for blockbuster hits and high-tech animation films, in my opinion.)

  3. I still feel that the best IMAX films are the ones specifically made for IMAX like Space Station (the one narrated by Tom Cruise). That is where you get the full effect. You focus to the center but the screen fills up your peripheral vision. AMAZING!!!

  4. i was going to see the new and the last batman movie on the new imax theater that build up in my town., but after reading this… hmm i think that i will be going to see it on 4dx instead of imax.. shame on imax.. these days everybody just wants to make some profit…

  5. Totally agree with you on the issue of true IMAX to that of the MiniMax crap screens in multiplex theaters like Regal Cinema and such. You’re paying more for a ticket to watch a film on a slightly larger screen to that of those in the surrounding theater rooms and will come out of the theater deaf due to the exceedingly overload sound system. The first, and last, MiniMax movie I saw was “Watchmen”. Perfect adaptation of the comic, but seeing it in the so-called IMAX format made me cringe throughout the whole presentation due to the severe loudness of the sound system. Had to plug my ears many times. I asked one of the theater employees about the situation afterwards and they came back with “Oh, that just the IMAX Experience.” It is? Since when? You visit a true IMAX large screen theater and watch one of the great made-for-MAX movies and you don’t come out deaf, plus you feel like you were there since the screen is so huge. MiniMax screens need to disappear. They are a waste of money.

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