Last Thursday afternoon, all was quiet in the Southpoint Cinemas' newest addition.
There wasn't a soul in the 358-seat auditorium as the credits for Fast Five played on the screen. Not one faux-leather seat was occupied. It even had that new theater smell. You could say this was the calm before the storm—the following day, the 16-screen multiplex, located at the Streets at Southpoint, would open its very own IMAX theater, with audiences flocking to see Johnny Depp get all pirate-y in IMAX 3D.
Originally, the theater was going to feature PDX (Premium Digital Experience) technology, so audiences could watch digital 2-D and 3-D films. However, plans were changed earlier this year when the theater eventually copped IMAX technology.
"We determined, probably right after the first of the year, that we were gonna take a look at IMAX," says Dale Coleman, vice president of the Charlotte-based Stone Theatres, which owns and operates Southpoint Cinemas, "and had always considered IMAX in building the large-format auditorium."
This is the third theater in the Triangle (last fall, an IMAX auditorium opened at the Regal Crossroads 20 in Cary) to open and feature IMAX components: amazing sound quality and a smoother, cleaner, larger picture. In recent years, the Canada-based IMAX Corporation, after the introduction of its IMAX digital projection systems (which the Southpoint IMAX theater has) in 2008, has been getting together with multiplex chains like AMC and Regal to install its dual digital projectors in multiplex auditoriums across the country.
However, these auditoriums don't have the giant screens normally associated with IMAX theaters. (These multiplex screens can go as small as 47 feet wide by 24 feet tall; see the yellow/left screen in the image above.) Many of these retrofitted auditoriums, like the Crossroads IMAX, just take out the first few rows of seats and move the screen closer to the audience, giving the impression that the screen is, in fact, giant. So, while these auditoriums boast IMAX-style picture and sound, it still may pale in comparison with giant-screen IMAX auditoriums.
Thanks to these new partnerships with theater chains, it seems IMAX (whose name means "image maximum") has rejected the bigger-is-better philosophy the company once preached. In September 2008, IMAX co-CEO Richard Gelfond told members of the Giant Screen Cinema Association that "we don't think of [IMAX] as the giant screen." Rather, he said, "it is the best immersive experience on the planet."
The Southpoint IMAX cinema does have a large screen, compared with the other screens at the multiplex. While the average Southpoint screen is usually 44–46 feet wide, the IMAX screen is 62 feet wide and 35 feet tall (red/middle screen above). And yet, it's still not the largest IMAX screen in the area. That honor goes, of course, to the Wachovia IMAX Theatre at the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. The museum's IMAX screen is 70 feet wide and 50 feet tall, certified by the Giant Screen Cinema Association (blue/right screen above). Along with its engulfing surround sound and all of its 272 seats about 70 feet from the screen, the Marbles IMAX prides itself on giving Triangle audiences the sensory immersion that Gelfond claims multiplex IMAX theaters will give people.
"The screen size is really what makes us stand apart, and the immersive experience that we're able to offer, because of our screen size, because of our sound and because of our stand-alone theater and the throw distance—you know, the seats are far from the screen," says Katy Hipp Burgwyn, Marbles director of marketing. "All of that makes us stand apart from any experience that you're gonna get at a multiplex."
While the Marbles IMAX plays both educational IMAX films and blockbuster films remastered to the IMAX format (since it's a family museum, the theater won't play R-rated IMAX films, like V for Vendetta or Watchmen), the museum is well aware it has to contend with the new IMAX auditoriums. "Some people would call them Faux-MAXes," jokes Burgwyn, "or Lie-MAX. We've heard that term as well."
There are those who have noticed that you don't get the definitive IMAX experience at a multiplex. In 2009, comedian and Parks and Recreation co-star Aziz Ansari memorably made a big stink on his Tumblr blog when he and a friend saw Star Trek at a multiplex IMAX theater in Burbank and realized the screen wasn't large enough to justify the additional $5 charge. He then asked his fans to boycott all IMAX theaters. ("REGAL, AMC, AND IMAX – YOU ARE LIARS!" he wrote.)
If you talk to the theater chains' corporate offices (reps for IMAX couldn't be reached for comment), they'll explain simply that audience demand for these IMAX auditoriums made them launch new ones. "It's about demand," says Chad Browning, director of marketing at Regal, explaining how the Crossroads IMAX came to be. "We felt like the demand was high enough for that premium experience in Cary."
However, if you talk to, say, Giant Screen Cinema Association executive director Tammy Seldon, she'll explain that IMAX has been pimping out its new digital technology to theater chains so they both can get some extra change from moviegoers. Says Seldon, "IMAX used to mean to a lot of people—people would think of IMAX and think, 'giant screen!' Because, for many years, most IMAX theaters were giant screens. Now, IMAX has branched out and has developed a new technology, of IMAX digital 3-D ...This is an excellent quality presentation, but it is not necessarily on a giant screen."
Having IMAX theaters go digital will eliminate major costs of distributing IMAX 70 mm film prints, which usually run up to $50,000 each. Even the Marbles IMAX converted to digital earlier this year, along with upgrading its audio and seating. "We waited quite a while to make the switch," says Burgwyn, who confirms that all new IMAX theaters are digital. "We waited until the IMAX digital system was able to fit our screen size, because we did not want to lose any of our screen size once we converted."
Unfortunately, screening IMAX on digital projectors has its disadvantages. For starters, IMAX digital projection has a much lower resolution than normal IMAX film, a problem when the images are being projected onto a screen that's 50 to 75 feet, the size of most IMAX screens. Also, IMAX digital projectors are intended for screens that have a 1:9 aspect ratio, making IMAX films that are shot using the traditional, full-frame 15/70 format virtually irrelevant.
But the main question is, does any of this matter to the moviegoers? Do local audiences go see an IMAX movie and have problems with the screen size or the aspect ratio? Do they even care? The biggest concern for a couple of Triangle residents surveyed for this story is that the ticket price is too damn high. Bianca Howard, of Raleigh, liked seeing Superman Returns at the Marbles IMAX, but "it's rarely worth the extra money." Tadhg McCarthy, also from Raleigh, finds IMAX movies impressive, but says they're "too pricey to go a lot."
However, there are those who wouldn't mind forking over some extra paper to get their IMAX on. James Hepler, of Durham, says he loves the Marbles IMAX and "will always pay extra for a sci-fi film in IMAX 3D. Concert footage is even better." Raleigh resident Julie Wood says that with movie ticket prices sky-high already, she'd "just as soon pay a bit extra and get the bigger experience of the IMAX. Besides, if you have a membership to Marbles, it's actually cheaper."
Nevertheless, if you do decide to take the IMAX plunge this summer, with many blockbuster films ready to be played at IMAX auditoriums, just make sure you know what you're getting. You may not end up getting the IMAX experience, but you'll likely get an IMAX experience.