FLASHBACK: The Haunting of Mary Pat

This Halloween, we’re revisiting one of the most controversial decisions made by IMAX Corporation.  The players are Mary Pat Ryan, IMAX’s Executive Vice President and Network Group President at the time and Ben Stassen, founder of nWave Pictures and director of the giant screen 3D film “Haunted Castle.”

We begin with a letter that was sent from Ms. Ryan to IMAX theater operators in December 2000:

Re. Haunted Castle

December 5, 2000

Dear Theater Manager:

We are writing today to advise of a decision we have made with respect to a new upcoming 3-D release, Haunted Castle. As part of the programming process for our corporate IMAX® Theatres, we have had an opportunity to view the nearly completed film recently. We have since concluded that the interests of IMAX Corporation and of our owned and operated theaters would not be well served by the exhibition of this film. In particular, we are extremely concerned that the violent episodes contained in the film, many of which depict torture and violence, could be degrading to our brand. Our theatre audiences have come to know and trust and associate IMAX brand with wholesome, educational, family entertainment. While each theatre has the right to make its own programming decisions, that right must be balanced against the rights inherent in the trademark license. In the case of this film, we strongly suggest any Imax theatres that decide to exhibit this film ensure that prominent, appropriate warnings as to the content of the film appear in all advertising and in an obvious location near the theatre ticket booth so that it is brought to the attention of the patrons before they purchase tickets.

We also advice that you carefully consider the times of day you select to exhibit this film.

As the owner of the IMAX trademark, we must reserve our rights to protest, and in some cases to expressly prohibit the exhibition of films in IMAX theatres which we believe will diminish the value of the IMAX brand. These rights are embodied in your IMAX system lease agreement. The decision to not expressly prohibit the exhibition of the film is not viewed by us as a waiver of the right to prohibit the showing of this or any other film at a licensed IMAX theatre when it is determined by us that the film is detrimental to the reputation of the IMAX brand. We will exercise these rights on your behalf in order to protect our collective investment in the goodwill and image associated with the IMAX mark. We believe you would expect nothing less from us as the owner of the IMAX trademark.

We have screened many great films recently, as we know you may have as well. We look forward to a successful and exciting year for all of us.

Best regards,

signed: Mary Pat Ryan, President, Network Group

After much discussion on a number of professional websites, Mr. Stassen replied on Dec. 8 to IMAX’s decision in an open letter:

What a lively discussion indeed!

If I may, I would like to set the record straight on a couple of issues at hand.

To date there have been 4 screenings for exhibitors and 2 test screenings with actual audiences. The theater exhibitors who had already signed their leases were invited to screen the film in Los Angeles and in New York in November. We also screened the film last week at the EUROMAX meeting in Bradford, and in Japan at the JSTC meeting last month.

The response from the public screenings was very positive. We did not get one single negative comment about the now infamous “torture chamber” scene. But, the viewers did criticize two sequences of the film for being too long (two concert sequences, one CGI, the other live action). We are altering both sequences to improve the flow and pace of the film.

We are very pleased with the exhibitors’ reaction as well. Only one exhibitor has backed out of the original deal out of seven North American exhibition chains, representing 33 theaters. As everyone knows, that one exhibitor is now spreading very publicly negative opinion about a film that was shown only at a private screening (this Exhibitor did not advise us in advance that they were going public with their opinions).

Regarding the content of the film, “Haunted Castle” is not a ride film converted to 1570. Contrary to our other large format films, we will not be able to extract a ride from the film at all. Having said that, a good portion of the film is shot from the point of view of “Johnny” (first person POV), the main character of the film. Johnny is a young musician who inherits a castle; a castle is inhabited by the Devil who wants to buy his soul…

“Haunted Castle” is a commercial film that timidly (we are talking PG here) tries to appeal to the tradtional 35mm movie going audience. If this film is degrading to the brand, then why did the brand sell 3-D systems to commercial exhibitors in the first place? Unless of course it is part of a crusade to convert all multiplexes into wholesome, educational entertainment centers.

We live in a diverse world and I think there is no need for one segment of the large format industry to impose its view on the other. The whole issue here of course is about programming and freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Does anyone have the right to interfere with the way individual exhibitors choose to program their theaters? Censorship is always scary, but it is particularly ugly when it hides behind the vale of “wholesome, educational family entertainment”. Does a projector manufacturer have the right to tell their customer what they should put on their screen?

Isn’t this a bit like having Coca Cola tell you not to mix your coke with rum, because it could be degrading to the brand?

nWave Pictures has financed “Haunted Castle” entirely with its own money. We have taken a big financial risk to supply products to a segment of the industry that desperately needs new 3-D films. Instead of being thanked for this effort, we have been attacked.

Regardless of whether or not an individual or a company likes a film, let exhibitors and ultimately the public decide what is and what isn’t appropriate for giant screen theaters.

Ben Stassen

P.S. Long before this controversy started, we had made the decision to have the film rated by the MPAA in North America. We will of course support it getting rated in other countries as necessary.

Times have certainly changed as both Resident Evil and Paranormal Activity films found their way onto IMAX screens this year.

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