Will we see the Star Wars saga in IMAX 3D?

UPDATE 2/9/2012: Read The Force vs. The MAX to get even more details.

The recent announcement that Lucasfilm will release all six Star Wars movies in 3D starting with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 2012 has led to speculation as to whether the films will be released in the growing network of IMAX 3D theatres. IMAX had released an edited version of Episode II: Attack of the Clones in IMAX in 2002 and was in discussions with Lucasfilm to produce a DMR version of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

The discussions however were mired in a spider’s web of relationships surrounding a patent infringement case between IMAX and 3D conversion company In-Three. In-Three had been working with Lucasfilm on converting the Star Wars films and, in fact, had shown a 3D conversion, or “dimensionalization” at the 2005 ShoWest conference in Las Vegas, where Lucas announced that he hoped to start exhibiting the films stereoscopically in theatres starting in 2007. The 3D conversion was delayed due to the lack of available 3D movie screens. That problem has now been resolved and with the recent initial distribution of 3D televisions, the market may prove lucrative.

At the same time as In-Three was working with Lucasfilm, they were also in initial discussions with IMAX about dimensionalizing key historic footage in the documentary Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon. Meanwhile, IMAX was also in talks with Universal about Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a film that In-Three was working on converting to 3D.

Here is what Star Wars Producer Rick McCallum told me in 2005 when interviewed for the WorldEnteractive website:

JK: Brad Wechsler, the co-CEO of IMAX told The Hollywood Reporter they had completed a 3-D conversion of a scene from Episode III. He said, and I quote here, “It looked exquisite.”

RM: First of all I’ve never even met that guy and second of all, what I’ve heard from people that I trust who have seen it, is that it didn’t look good.

JK: So are you saying that you have never met either Brad Wechsler or Rich Gelfond?

RM: Yes, that’s right. Not only have I never met them but I don’t even know who they are! I have only ever dealt with Greg Foster. You have to understand, we didn’t have a great experience working with IMAX on Episode II. A good friend of ours asked us to help IMAX out on Episode II.. They needed a big picture and we wanted to help them. But they promised us the world on Episode II, and never delivered on the number of screens they got for us. We still love the idea of large screen formats, whether they are IMAX or conventional cinema. The problem we had with IMAX was that, as they are set up now, they are just simply too expensive to work with. We loved the work that David Keighley did for us on the DMR processing, absolutely stunning, but with the rest of the IMAX overhead it just doesn’t make sense to go through all the trouble. From what I understand, none of the Disney large format releases have used their DMR process. The animated movies were recorded out to film from original high resolution proprietary digital files that Disney uses for archiving. While DKP did the record out of Fantasia, it was not the DMR process. In fact, I’ve heard that Rick Gordon at RPG handled all of the postproduction for almost all of Disney’s large format films after Fantasia, not IMAX. All of Disney’s non-animated features including Young Black Stallion, Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep, and I think even the upcoming Mars used original capture on various film or video formats, none of them used the DMR process. As good and efficient as David’s set-up is, you have to stop and ask, why is anyone paying millions of dollars for their overhead?

JK: So why did you even consider working with IMAX on Episode III?

RM: The reason is very simple, we had been working with In-Three for a couple of years and they had proved to us that they have a real technology that actually works and that could be done in a cost effective way. They can take any 2-D movie and with their unique technology and turn it into a realistic 3-D movie. We gave them 10 minutes of New Hope footage and just weeks later they were back with the most astonishing 3-D footage I have ever seen. Out of nowhere, IMAX got in touch with us, but we made it perfectly clear that we were not interested in working with them again in a 2-D environment. IMAX suggested a gimmick of showing the last 20-30 minutes of Episode III in 3-D and having In-Three dimensionalize™ it. We were interested in that suggestion but only if In-Three did the conversion using their process, which we were so impressed with. The only Episode III footage I gave directly to IMAX was just 3 minutes for them to do a comparison test of full-frame to 16:9 aspect ratios so that we could work out the transition between the 2-D and 3-D sections of the movie if we went ahead with their suggestion. In the end of the day it was too much of a gimmick, and it all become too much of a drama, which was a shame because I was really excited about the idea.

JK: Have you seen the clip that Wechsler mentioned?

RM: No I haven’t, nor am I interested in seeing it. And the reason is, I was very upset that IMAX had the audacity to show it to a group of executives from another studio without asking for our permission or even telling us about it!

It should be noted that the new 3D conversion of the Star Wars films is being handled directly by Industrial Light & Magic, a Lucasfilm subsidiary.  If Lucasfilm executives have improved their relationship with IMAX, then the possibility exists for IMAX distribution.  Precedents have been set.  Producer/director Frank Marshall, in an LFCA keynote, refered to the DMR process as a conceit, however now allows his films to be presented in the format.  And Universal, the studio behind King Kong, has just announced that the fifth Fast and Furious film will be their first DMR since Apollo 13.  With two years to go until Episode I, there’s plenty of time to see what happens.

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