PART I: THE GELFLING SPEAKS HIS PROPHECY
On the day before the seventh anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers, another tower of a New York landmark was about to be hit. Standing in front of the largest movie screen in the United States, while trying to hold back a fit of coughing and sneezing that he said would prevent him from participating in a Q&A session afterwards, IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond blew off the screen’s enormity. “This doesn’t matter,” he told the bewildered crowd of industry professionals. IMAX to him was no longer an issue of size. The defining term was now what he called simply “The WOW Factor.”
It was around this time that IMAX began its rollout of digital projection systems. Many in the industry were against them, feeling that the resolution, light output, and image size were subpar to what could be accomplished with the IMAX film projector. Within the next year, the argument would hit the international stage as protests by film critic Roger Ebert and comic Aziz Ansari went viral on the internet.
A protest by exhibitors, many of which felt they were again being left behind by IMAX as it further pursued its commercial interests, and spearheaded by the Giant Screen Cinema Association, resulted in IMAX agreeing to make changes to delineate the differing systems in the market. What this resulted in was two terms: “Classic Design” and “Multiplex Design.” Not enough to note the technical differences the exhibitors were in search of.
For years, IMAX has expressed the desire NOT to delineate theatres based on projection systems. They are both “The IMAX Experience.” I don’t blame them. Having won the large format film wars (more on that in part 2 a.k.a. Tammy, Get Your Gun), IMAX’s current competition are the myriad operators outfitting their theatres with digital equipment. If you are competing against digital, why brand yourself as digital. It is not the digital projection equipment that defines their theatres from other houses; it is the IMAX brand and The IMAX Experience.
On that September 10 day, Gelfond used the analogy of different models of BMW cars, stating that no matter the model, they were all BMW’s. It was really a bad choice of a brand. Using Peabody’s Wayback Machine, I have stolen that portion of his speech and given him a new, corrected version.
“While we know that the digital IMAX projection system is inferior in every aspect to our film-based systems, such as the one in this lovely theatre, which happens to be my favorite in the whole world, we also know it to be superior to all other digital projection systems on the market. Combined with our patented IMAX post-Sonics digital sound systems, this new IMAX digital system is an intermediary between bland, regular digital and cool, awesome IMAX film.
“Now, we can’t just go and call this IMAX digital, because our research, that we spent half-a-million dollars on, has shown us (cough) that people will confuse this with regular digital. The customers are not looking for digital, they’re looking for IMAX.
“Let me explain by using an analogy, and this one won’t involve cars because that’s a bad idea. In San Francisco, there is a five-story Macy’s store on Union Square, which serves as their flagship store on the West Coast. Just a few miles south, at Stonestown Mall, also in San Francisco, is another Macy’s. Now, this Macy’s is just two stories and doesn’t have anywhere near the collection nor the unique boutiques nor even the Cheesecake Factory on the roof as its bigger sister to the north does. But they don’t call it Macy’s Light or Macy’s Suburb. They don’t even call the Union Square location Macy’s Flagship. They call them Macy’s Union Square and Macy’s Stonestown. They call them by their locations because whenever you go into a Macy’s, no matter where or how big, you’re getting a Macy’s experience. We’re the same way.”
And now I need to use the Wayback Machine to go back and repossess the words I lent Gelfond before Rob Lister sues my ass. While I’m doing that, the good folks at the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City are busy converting over to a new digital IMAX system from their film-based one. When they reopen next month, they will be the fourth institutional theatre to have done so.
Having been a giant screen theatre operator myself, I commend them for doing so. Keep in mind, that from a technical standpoint, the IMAX digital system is currently inferior to their film-based systems. But from an operational standpoint, the digital system makes sense. No need for long projectionist hours, no need for film storage, bulky platters and QTRU’s, a cost reduction on maintenance as this can be done remotely for the both image and sound, rather than sending in a tech. 2D theatres, such as Denver and Tallahassee, can suddenly show 3D. Most important, with a huge reduction in print costs, theatres can add more and more films to their inventory than they could when having to allocate $20,000 to $40,000 for a documentary.
Digital IMAX is here to stay. We need to accept it. Soon, laser imaging will provide a digital image more reminiscent of large format film. In the meantime, groups such as the GSCA and DIGSS are working on providing specifications for giant screen theaters, an important move as boundaries are crossed in this new digital age. But even that may not be enough…..
What do James Hyder, the LFCA, China, the Superbowl, and Rob Lister all have in common? They all appear in Part 2 of this essay, online tomorrow.