IMAX explodes into commercial market after ‘Batman bump’

When audiences packed theatres to watch last summer’s big blockbuster film, some movie-goers were treated to a much bigger Batman movie than others.

Everyone was watching The Dark Knight, the Batman sequel from director Christopher Nolan that earned record box-office numbers, but not everyone was watching it on an IMAX screen.

Read related story: Canadian IMAX technology contributes to The Dark Knight’s success

Those who did got to see the caped crusader wreck the batmobile and pummel his arch-nemesis, The Joker, on a screen size as big as the side of a 10-storey building.

Short for “Image Maximum” this film format is doing for movie theatres what Hi-Definition did for TV sales. Its 16 metre-tall, 22 metre-wide screen size is many times larger than standard movie theatre screens. Image clarity and sound quality are also improved many times over. It was enough to win over Nolan, a film auteur at heart.

“I’ve always been interested in shooting a film in IMAX,” he says in a video on IMAX.com. “I always felt that if you could shoot a fiction film in that format, you’d get an incredibly immersive experience.”

The Dark Knight showcased IMAX to many movie-goers for the first time, and brought the format into the limelight just as Hollywood is starting to pay attention to its benefits.

Boosted by a new digital technology that allows standard films to be converted to IMAX format, this 40 year-old Canadian invention is entering the spotlight. IMAX is expanding beyond your city’s science centre and moving into its multiplex theatre.

With headquarters in both Toronto and New York, IMAX is starting 2009 off on the right foot. Renewed attention is being brought to The Dark Knight with the recent DVD and Blu-Ray disc releases, plus Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar award for his supporting actor role.

“IMAX is tied to that movie and Christopher Nolan loves the format and takes every opportunity to talk about it,” says Corey Hammill, an entertainment analyst with Paradigm Capital Inc. “It’s great profile for the company.”

The film broke many records for the IMAX format: most IMAX screens on an opening night at 1994, the first time a Hollywood movie premiered on an IMAX screen, and it smashed the opening weekend box office postmark with $7 million in sales.

Nolan was the first commercial director to use IMAX cameras to film parts of a movie. Millions of movie-goers were introduced to IMAX thanks to those efforts. The Hollywood treatment isn’t just a passing phenomenon either, with a spate of big title releases coming to IMAX screens, and two major movie theatre chains planning a rapid building of the giant theatres.

DreamWorks Animation has penned a four-picture deal with IMAX to have three 3D films projected on the huge screens this year and next. Titles include the just-released Monsters vs. Aliens 3D, and Shrek Goes Fourth in 3D in May 2010.

More importantly, additional popcorn gobblers will get a chance to see those films in IMAX theatres. AMC Entertainment and IMAX reached an agreement in December 2007 to install 100 theatres in 33 major U.S. markets. That was on top of a deal earlier that year with Regal Entertainment Group to install 31 theatres in 20 major U.S. markets.

“It’s taken about 40 years to get where they are today, and then two deals doubled that in less than three years,” Hammill says. “2009 is the year of installations. You’ll really start to see that flow through in the results for 2010.”

All the new IMAX theatres make use of digital projector technology, an update to the gigantic film reels that had long been associated with the format. The reels containing a feature-length movie were so large that machinery was required to change a reel. It also made using the film on set problematic – Nolan shot The Dark Knight IMAX sequences in bursts no longer than 180 seconds.

The IMAX format may have been debuted to the world at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal, but it was the 2002 innovation of IMAX Digital Re-mastering that has transformed it into a viable product for the mass market, says Greg Foster, chairman and President of IMAX Filmed Entertainment.

“The digital system has been a huge benefit to our customers, as it eliminates the need for expensive film prints, which can cost as much as $40,000 for a 3D movie,” he says. “It also makes the operation of an IMAX theatre much more efficient and cost effective.”

Overcoming the technical challenges is a big jump for IMAX. It’s led to 200 new theatres, according to Foster. That’s the 131 in North America, and other deals abroad, including in China.

In short, the new technology means that any film can be converted for playback on an IMAX screen. So movies made with more traditional means are now being converted by studios looking to expand their audience.

An IMAX ticket might cost a couple of dollars more than an average film, but the value-added ticket is somewhat immune to the effects of a recession, Hammill says. Once people go to the theatre, they are looking for the best-quality experience possible, and a small price difference won’t stop them.

“If a film is available in IMAX, then the theatre-goer is going to want to see it in IMAX,” he says. “You’ve already invested in the theatre experience, so why not go all out and see it in the best available format?”

Those who didn’t see Batman is all of its IMAX glory will have a chance to experience the format with this summer’s anticipated blockbuster Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Director Michael Bay has followed Nolan’s lead and employed the use of IMAX cameras to capture select scenes of the movie, Foster says.

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