AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" opens this weekend and some moviegoers will pay up to $6 more to see it in IMAX, where the screens are bigger and the action should feel more intense. So real you can feel it in your bones - that's how IMAX puts it. We wondered, though, is the IMAX at the multiplex the same as the one you can see at the museum? NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: From under water to outer space, IMAX has produced some astounding images of the natural world. One of the first IMAX films, "To Fly," has been showing at the Smithsonian since 1976 and it is still popular.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "TO FLY")
BLAIR: IMAX was co-founded in the late 1960s by a group of friends in Canada who had filmmaking and engineering experience. Large format films existed but they wanted to revolutionize them. With public funding, they built special theaters with screens reaching six stories high and seven stories wide, surround sound and seats on a steep slope that puts you even closer to the action. They used cameras with triple-width, 70-millimeter film - ten times the size of what's used in ordinary cameras. Zarth Bertsch is director of IMAX theaters at the Smithsonian.
ZARTH BERTSCH: It's just breath-taking. And it's one of the key ways that we disseminate the museum mission. It gives an immersive experience for the guests.
BLAIR: Beginning in 1984, American astronauts started taking IMAX cameras into space.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "DREAM IS ALIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: At last we can see our magnificent earth in all its splendor.
BLAIR: But in the early 1990s, a new generation of IMAX executives was dreaming about a particular place on earth: Hollywood. IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond says they knew there was potential to make the company profitable. So, they tried making films that would please both museums and Hollywood.
RICH GELFOND: We did a dinosaur movie and the institution said, wait a minute, the dinosaur has six toes, whereas in life it only has five toes, so we're not going to play it. And the commercial theaters said, you know, wait a minute, no kids are eaten by dinosaurs, so it's not exciting enough for the commercial market.
BLAIR: So, they tried to court the commercial market in other ways. They developed digital and 3-D cameras that were easier and cheaper to use than their film counterparts. They partnered with established Hollywood filmmakers to make movies like "Avatar" and "Polar Express."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "POLAR EXPRESS")
TOM HANKS: (as character) Hold on tightly.
BLAIR: They persuaded big movie theater chains to convert their multiplexes into IMAX theaters.
MARTINEZ BROWN: I prefer the IMAX movies, preferably in 3-D.
BLAIR: Martinez Brown was coming out of a recent showing of "Captain America" at a theater in Washington, D.C. He's also seen IMAX documentaries at the Smithsonian. The difference, he says, the museum is more visceral.
BROWN: You know you're actually inside of it, versus in the movie, you know, it's not that interactive.
BLAIR: Brown says he's willing to pay a premium price of $16.25 but these retrofitted theaters do not live up to the original IMAX brand.
BROWN: If they're going to advertise it as being IMAX, then why not just bring that same experience over to the movies?
BLAIR: Some angry film buffs call these retrofits liemax. Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, says IMAX doesn't make it clear to the public that these two experiences are different.
JEFF BOCK: There's no IMAX extreme or IMAX to the Max, which would be, you know, a great way to identify how different they are.
BLAIR: But whatever brand confusion exists, IMAX is still going strong. Last year, the IMAX showings of "Gravity" made over $100 million worldwide, 15 percent of its total grosses.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "GRAVITY")
SANDRA BULLOCK: (as Ryan) No.
BLAIR: But where does this leave museums? The majority of institutional IMAX theaters are still made to show 70-millimeter film. The Smithsonian's Zarth Bertsch.
BERTSCH: We all need to convert to digital because film is diminishing and soon to be gone. And it's a bit sad because film still is higher quality than most digital that is out there.
BLAIR: But IMAX executives believe digital technology might soon surpass film in quality. The company is investing over $40 million to develop a laser projection system that will offer greater brightness and clarity and a wider color gamut. But IMAX film lovers have a Hollywood crusader on their side. "Batman" director Christopher Nolan first became a fan of IMAX when he was a teenager seeing documentaries like "To Fly." He used IMAX film to breathtaking effect in "The Dark Night Rises." In one aerial scene, the villain hooks a captive to a cable.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE DARK NIGHT RISES")
TOM HARDY: (as Bane) Calm down, doctor. Now's not the time for fear.
BLAIR: ...pulls a switch...
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)
BLAIR: ...and you watch the airplane fall away leaving them - and you - suspended high in the sky with stunning views of the earth below. Christopher Nolan.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Those big film projectors and those big film screens are absolutely still the best possible image that's out there, and it's not going to be touched by newer technology for, I think, a long time.
BLAIR: Christopher Nolan shot his next movie, "Interstellar," with IMAX film, and he says IMAX theaters - made to show film - will be the best way to see it. But, he says, he'll also make the movie available in digital for the multiplex. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.