IMAX Reigns, From Museums To Movie Theaters

Audie Cornish speaks with James Hyder of the Independent Journal of the Large Format Motion Picture Industry. They discuss the rise of the IMAX screen and what distinguishes both the technology and the cinematic experience of these very large screens.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From the small screen to the big, big, big screen. Theater owners are gearing up for what they hope will be a blockbuster weekend with the final chapter in director Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

ANNE HATHAWAY: (as Selina Kyle/Catwoman) My mother warned me about getting into cars with strange men.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (as Bruce Wayne/Batman) This isn't a car.

CORNISH: "The Dark Knight Rises" opens at the end of the week on both regular and IMAX screens, with tickets for some midnight IMAX showings already selling for upwards of $100 on sites like Craigslist. Even though true IMAX screens can be as tall as eight stories high, millions of moviegoers could find themselves paying the premium IMAX ticket price for a much smaller screen. So what gives?

Joining us now to help us understand this is James Hyder. He's the editor and publisher of LF Examiner, which calls itself the Independent Journal of the Large Format Motion Picture Industry. Welcome, Mr. Hyder.

JAMES HYDER: Hi.

CORNISH: Now, I remember growing up IMAX films as something you could see, say, at a museum, on like a huge curving screen, but now, you can see films labeled IMAX, you know, at your neighborhood multiplex. So when did this happen, and why?

HYDER: Well, IMAX had gotten into a lot of museums, as you said, in its early part of its existence, and around 2008, they introduced a digital system that they aimed primarily at multiplex theaters, which couldn't afford to build the huge screens that you were talking about and wanted something exciting for their customers. And most of these digital IMAX theaters are in existing auditoriums that they didn't build a new theater as they had for the museums - a giant screen. It's an existing auditorium. They make the screen a little bit larger, but it's not quite as large as the average theater in a museum.

CORNISH: So what's the difference in your experience? I mean, what's the definition of IMAX?

HYDER: Well, IMAX claims officially that the experience is the same no matter what IMAX theater you go to. A lot of people feel, though, that IMAX was really synonymous with the giant screens. The average in a museum was around 60 by 80 feet, and the average in the multiplex is quite a bit smaller than that.

CORNISH: So is the film quality different?

HYDER: Well, in the original classic IMAX theaters, they were actually using 70-millimeter film. In these new multiplex theaters, they're using a digital projection system, and many people feel that the digital is a very sharp and clear image, but it's not quite as sharp as the film image. The film image contains a lot of information, and it's considered to be the highest quality film format, and that, of course, why director Chris Nolan wanted to shoot his film with the IMAX cameras.

CORNISH: Is there any evidence that these technologies are drawing more ticket buyers?

HYDER: Yes. IMAX claims that they are drawing quite a few more visitors to the auditoriums, and their expansion into new markets have been quite high.

CORNISH: Because for the regular theatergoer, I mean, sometimes it feels a little ridiculous. You can choose between a 3-D version, a 2-D version, a 3-D IMAX version, a 2-D IMAX version. And at a certain point, you don't know if you're just totally getting taken for a ride there in terms of the ticket price.

HYDER: Well, it's right. I mean, I think theater owners have found that just like in the supermarket, when you give consumers a lot of choices, they seemed to prefer having lots of choices over none. And so I think they try and fill all the market niches they can with all the different formats that they have. But you're right. There's quite a bewildering array of options, and it's a question of what's worth it for your money.

CORNISH: And since you're the expert, James Hyder, what do you prefer when you go to see a blockbuster? I mean, are you an IMAX fan? What to you is worth the ticket when you go to the movies?

HYDER: Well, as it happens, I don't care for some of the films, many of the blockbuster films that are now appearing on IMAX theaters. And I used to go out of a sense of professional obligation to see everything that IMAX released, but I gave up that some time around the time of one of the boy-band films. I forget now which one it was. But, no, if I'm going to see a film, and I think I'll go to see "Dark Knight Rises," I'll go to see it in an IMAX film theater.

CORNISH: James Hyder, thank you so much for explaining it to us.

HYDER: It's been my pleasure, Audie. Thank you.

CORNISH: James Hyder, editor and publisher of LF Examiner, the Independent Journal of the Large Format Motion Picture Industry.

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