Better IMAX Branding

When is an IMAX theater not an IMAX theater?

I've been looking forward to seeing The Dark Knight Rises since the credits rolled on The Dark Knight, and I knew I wanted to see it in IMAX. There's no shortage of IMAX screens in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, but there's a hitch.

When you hear the name IMAX you probably think of a towering monster of a screen, but IMAX Corporation has a slightly different view. Many IMAX branded screens aren't the size or image ratio an average viewer would associate with the name IMAX and most these days don't even have film projectors.

According to Richard Gelfond, IMAX Corporation's co-CEO, IMAX doesn't have standard sizes for their screensGelfond told LF Examiner IMAX has “…a very scientific test. It’s called the ‘wow’ factor. So if you don’t go in and go ‘wow,’ we won’t do it.” So, there's no standard screen dimension or aspect ratio, just “wow”.

IMAX Frame Sizes
The difference between 15/70mm IMAX and IMAX Digital image sizes and ratios.

In the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, the Cinemark 17 on Webb Chapel had a 15/70mm print, and The Omni in Ft. Worth had TDKR on an IMAX Dome (aka OMNIMAX). AMC Northpark, AMC Stonebriar, and AMC The Parks at Arlington all used digital projection on smaller screens. That means there were five IMAX theaters with three vastly different experiences and only one that is what most would consider a "true" IMAX experience. Worse, because IMAX doesn't identify which theaters are which, there's no way to find out without some serious digging. (For what it's worth, the Cinemark 17 is a real one.)

I have no problem with new IMAX screens that are sized between standard cinema and the enormous legacy IMAX screens, but I think it should be made more clear what viewers will be getting before they enter the theater. IMAX doesn't seem to feel that way right yet.

Gelfond explained that the company feared an “IMAX Digital” brand might cast the older film-based theaters as “second-class citizens” in the public’s mind, since “digital” generally has connotations of “newer,” and “cooler.”
LF Examiner

That might happen in the short term, but I doubt the dip would last long once audiences experience the various screens for themselves and word gets out. Why not come up with a different name for IMAX digital theatres?

…it seems far more likely that the company was worried that ticket buyers who noticed the difference between the average 4,800 square-foot (450 square-meter) 15/70 film screen and a digital one 1,250 square feet (120 square-meters) in area wouldn’t return to the smaller if they could see the same movie on the larger.
LF Examiner

It's also possible that IMAX is trying to make a transition from being known for giant screens to being known for an overall experience. Even so, I think the transition could be handled better.

Some suggestions

Rather than just griping, I'd like to offer some suggestions. I see the problem as two-fold. For whatever reason, IMAX Corporation hasn't clearly differentiated between the IMAX experiences, so I'll start there. Next, I believe the lack of consistency among the IMAX experiences needs to be addressed. Each is unique, so there are differences, but experience between like-branded theaters should be consistent.

IMAX brands

Instead of a blanket IMAX brand being used to market three entirely distinct experiences, each should be given their own name. I can't think of a good excuse to not make the differences between the IMAX formats abundantly clear before the audience enters the theatre.

  • Rename legacy IMAX theatres to IMAX PLUS. The new name hints at the epic proportions of the legacy theatre screens and makes an end-run around the problem of "Digital" implying the legacy screens are outmoded.
  • IMAX will continue being used for the digital/retrofitted theatres just it is now.
  • IMAX Dome already differentiates itself by—you guessed it—its unique screen, but the branding must be strictly enforced. No more sometimes-IMAX Dome-sometimes-OMNIMAX. It's IMAX Dome. Consistency. Spread the word.
Suggested IMAX Brands
IMAX could better differentiate their theaters.

IMAX standards

Now that there are three clearly defined experiences, there need to be clearly defined standards for exhibition. I'll leave the technical details to more educated minds than mine, but here are some rough ideas.

  • Audio should be similar in all theaters, regardless of size. Loud? Sure. Clear? Definitely. Make it good, make it consistent. (I think this is already the case; IMAX sound has been always been crazy good in my experience.)
  • The picture should be large and full of detail. Working with IMAX PLUS and IMAX Dome, this is no problem, since both use a 15/70mm print, but the new IMAX screens are a mixed bag. As Hollywood transitions into all-digital distribution, the new IMAX screens with dual 2K projectors are on the right path, but it's estimated that it will be another 4 years before IMAX Digital reaches the detail of 15/70mm film.
  • IMAX PLUS and the new IMAX screens should be exactly the same aspect ratio regardless of the size theatre they are installed in. There should never be any image crop. IMAX is 1.33:1. Show it correctly. (I realize there are inherent problems with digital projectors and 1.33:1 ratios. I wonder how much of this is a technical issue and how much is due to lack of demand?)
  • The relative size of the screen should be the same between IMAX PLUS and new IMAX screens. The math could be a problem when trying to fit a profitable number of seats into a new IMAX theater, but the image should ultimately fill the same field of view for an audience member sitting in the center of a new IMAX theater as it does in an IMAX PLUS theatre. 

What's next?

There are still challenges with the transition out of film and into digital, as well as keeping the IMAX brand relevant after it's been watered down by other large format screens and its own management directions. At least with these changes, audiences would have three clear choices and would know without a doubt what they could expect when they watch a movie in an IMAX theater (whichever type it may be).