The Great IMAX Scam

May 13, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has been noted that Star Trek set a new first-weekend record for gross receipts in IMAX theaters. This should come as no surprise, since the number of "IMAX" venues has increased dramatically during the past year. This is the result of conversions being performed in larger AMC and Regal multiplexes in which one house (often the largest) is retrofitted for IMAX viewing. Typically, the necessary work for the conversion can be done in a week or two and the new projection and sound equipment is not prohibitively expensive. The result: IMAX theaters are popping up all over. The appeal is understandable. For many years, IMAX has had the reputation of being the way to see movies (when offered in that format), but the limited number of venues has often mandated long road trips. What a boon to have one just around the corner!

The first time I saw an IMAX movie was in the early 1990s. It was a nature flick - at the time, that was IMAX's core niche. To be accurate, the venue was an OMNIMAX theater, which is essentially IMAX but with a bigger, curved screen. Talk about being immersed in the experience. It was closer to an amusement park ride than a motion picture.

At some point, IMAX started dabbling in exhibiting feature films and the business blossomed. Personally, I have never enjoyed watching a movie in an IMAX theater. It's too in-your-face. It's too overwhelming. There's the ever-present danger of motion sickness. I love roller coasters, but I don't go to movie theaters to experience them. In its true, awe-inspiring glory, IMAX is about spectacle, and irrelevancies like story, character, and theme get lost in the mix. Surprisingly, however, that's not really a problem with the new multiplex IMAXes. Why? Because they're not the same.

A number of very significant compromises have been made to shoehorn IMAX theaters into regular multiplex auditoriums, most of which have to do with the visual side of the equation. From an audio standpoint, multiplex IMAX is almost identical to old-school IMAX. The differences relate to the picture. In the first place, multiplex IMAX is entirely digital. This is the reason none of the new IMAX theaters could show The Dark Knight last summer - all IMAX prints at the time were 70mm, and that meant only old-school IMAX. No digital copies (this was rectified for the Christmas re-release). But the biggest cheat is screen size. In a true IMAX theater, it's humongous, on the order of 65 feet x 90 feet (IMAX's native aspect ratio is 1.33:1, not widescreen). Even those sitting in the back row are looking up - the screen has the height of a six-story building! Multiplex IMAX screens are anywhere from a quarter of the size to half the size (by area) - still bigger than a traditional multiplex screen but not so large that you'll be overwhelmed.

I have seen a couple of films in multiplex IMAX and have enjoyed the experience although, to be frank, it didn't seem vastly superior to that of a regular auditorium. I wasn't overwhelmed, which was okay because I wasn't looking to be overwhelmed. I had reviews to write. But here's where "buyer beware" comes in: do not expect to be blown away in a multiplex IMAX theater the way you would be blown away in an old-school IMAX theater. The fundamental problem isn't merely that they're different, but that AMC and Regal are doing their damndest to hide the fact that they're different. I asked the manager at the AMC Cherry Hill theater if there was an appreciable difference between his IMAX and the one at the King of Prussia theater (an old-school IMAX). His response: "Of course, the screen is slightly smaller, but the sound system is identical and the screen still conforms to IMAX standards. So they're pretty much the same." I followed up by asking him if he had ever seen a movie at the King of Prussia theater or the Franklin Institute (OMNIMAX). He admitted he had not.

But here's the other catch: they're charging $4 (and in some regions, $5) per ticket for the pleasure of seeing a movie in IMAX-that's-not-really-IMAX. This is highway robbery. People aren't complaining because, for the most part, they don't know better. A majority of those attending multiplex IMAX venues have never seen anything in old-school IMAX. The surcharge is ridiculous, but not informing consumers (via some sort of placard at the box office) of what they're really getting is dishonest. If someone is going to pay $14 (instead of $10) to see Star Trek, they should at least know how little they're getting for the extra $4.

And that brings to mind another annoying multiplex surcharge - the one for 3D digital features. Around here, that's $3 per ticket, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it's $4 in some places. This is more gouging. By now, I have seen enough 3D movies to realize I don't really want to see any more. Despite the widespread protestations to the contrary emerging from Hollywood, 3D remains as much a gimmick today as when it was first introduced - except now it's slicker. Not only does it damage the vibrancy of the picture, but it detracts from the essential cinematic elements. I'm glad Disney is not screening Up in 3D (all of the local press screenings are 2D-only). This means I can concentrate on the movie.

Yet theaters are expecting movie-goers to pay $3 extra for the benefit of seeing an inferior copy of a film (washed out colors) with a few annoying bells and whistles. And people are doling out the money, although they're certainly not avoiding the 2D versions. In my experience, movie-goers are opportunistic. If they get to the multiplex when a 3D show is about to start, they'll see it. If not, 2D is fine.

When I asked the theater manager about the IMAX and 3D surcharges, he informed me that those were "value added" charges. In fact, it's hard to object to an IMAX surcharge, since the sound and picture are better than they are in a conventional theater, but $2 would be more reasonable for multiplex IMAX. Save the $4 for old-school IMAX. When it comes to 3D, while I'll readily admit that the experience is different, but "different" does not necessarily equate to "better." I have seen three movies in both 2D and 3D, and I have enjoyed all three better without the polarized glasses.

This is all really a money-grab on the part of the studios and the theaters who, like the airlines, are looking for every available opportunity to maximize revenue. Ten years ago, it was pre-screening commercials. Now, it's surcharges. For multiplexes, it's all about managing the bottom line. When it comes to ticket sales, they have an unfavorable split with the studios (sometimes as egregious as 85/15 over the first two weeks of a release, and often not getting to 50/50 until the sixth week or later - long after heavily frontloaded blockbusters have ceased earning meaningful dollars), so the money must come from other sources, such as concessions. This split, by the way, is the reason why multiplexes do not police theater-surfers. The money they lose in ticket sales is more than recouped at the concession stand. Someone watching four movies in a row will almost certainly buy a tub of overpriced popcorn, a cup of overpriced soda, and an overpriced candy bar or two.

Officially, AMC discourages theater surfing. Their position is that anyone wanting to see more than one movie should return to the box office and buy a new ticket. Too few employees make this policy unenforceable. It's the same thing for R-rated movies. In a 24-plex, it's not practical to stop kids from buying tickets to a PG-13 movie then sneaking into an R-rated title. I read on-line that some estimates put the audiences figures for the recent Friday the 13th remake as being comprised of 25% under-17 viewers. Studios don't like this because they're not getting proper credit for box office receipts. Multiplexes don't care.

I'm not about to start a crusade about multiplex IMAX, but I believe theaters should be forthcoming about the product they're offering. The solution: Post a message at the box office. ("Although the sound and video in our IMAX theater conform to strict IMAX standards, we want to make patrons aware that the screen size is not equal to what you may be used to from older, more established IMAX venues. Our screen is approximately 25% the size of those by area. If you have concerns, please consult the manager." Or something like that - you get the idea.) Then at least anyone who elects to pay the extra $4 can't say they weren't warned. As it currently stands, however, multiplex IMAX is one of the biggest scams going on in the movie business.