Special Features – The future of IMAX: Sidelining the Bigger Picture

Film journalist Nick Goundry considers the evolution of the IMAX format…

Christopher Nolan wants to steer cinemagoers back towards the bigger picture. A lengthy IMAX-filmed trailer for his new Batman film The Dark Knight Rises will tower before audiences in selected IMAX theatres later this month, ahead of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. With the Mission: Impossible sequel itself featuring IMAX-filmed images of Tom Cruise hanging off Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, does the format have a big future?

IMAX has been a cinematic oddity since conception, never quite becoming the cool kid on the block. Initially it focussed on the Size Does Matter approach, proudly showing off its big numbers as badges of honour. A screen more than 20 metres high! (That’s the size of nearly five double-decker buses, fact fans!); a surround-sound system of nearly 12,000 watts (Gosh, that’s… a lot!); spectacular scale was the big sell and the science is both simple and dramatic.

Film stock in the IMAX format is 65mm wide rather than the industry-standard of 35mm, and is transferred to an even bigger 70mm for projection. At first the format seemed a best natural fit for documentaries. Everest, the African savannah, the Grand Canyon and even orbital spaceflights envelop the senses. This is IMAX as theme park ride, complete with a short speech from the usher about combating motion sickness; all that’s missing is a reminder to keep arms and legs inside the carriage.

In recent years IMAX has had to adjust its focus because size isn’t everything anymore. Regular film screenings began sneaking into the schedules – some bigged-up from 35mm but most shown in their regular presentations – and then suddenly 3D became the fashionable choice, apparently convincing IMAX it was time to shift focus.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Dark Knight Rises have both shunned 3D in favour of IMAX sequences. Christopher Nolan made an impact with IMAX in The Dark Knight, wowing audiences with several larger-than-life sequences, and he’s repeating the trick with the sequel. The new Mission: Impossible film will showcase the Burj Khalifa via IMAX, which is the kind of thing that should deliver added thrills; big spectacle, big picture.

So while technical innovation leans towards supplying amazing things in small packages, could IMAX still be big? Well, it’s generating a fraction of 3D’s industry buzz, which isn’t really surprising considering nothing has done for IMAX what Avatar did for 3D, and isn’t likely to anytime soon.

The future of the bigger screen is uncertain. While it looks great, the production costs are high and the equipment cumbersome. It offers no real short cuts to a fast buck, either, which could be crucial. Unlike 3D, there isn’t a cheapo version of IMAX that lazy execs can slap on in post-production as an added marketing tool for the opening weekend. Audiences can spill out of the cinema arguing about the quality of the 3D, but they won’t be arguing about how big the screen was. It’s possible to convert from 35mm to IMAX, but this isn’t ideal. It’s either a big image from the beginning, or it isn’t.

Filming big means using a bulky and expensive IMAX camera with expensive 65mm film stock, and preferably a great-looking (and probably expensive) location to maximise the impact of scale. By this time the suits back at the studio are looking at the numbers and wagging their fingers, unless perhaps you have a superstar filmmaker like Christopher Nolan at the helm. And he trashed one camera filming The Dark Knight.

But Nolan’s contemporaries aren’t exactly queuing up to echo his support for the format. James Cameron’s upcoming re-release of Titanic will apparently include a ’2D IMAX’ version, but the focus is on the 3D release and it isn’t clear whether 2D IMAX will actually include bigged-up 65mm sequences.

Mission: Impossible director Brad Bird and his star Tom Cruise seem to be about the only other high-profile fans of the format. In a recent interview with Empire magazine, Bird likened the appeal of IMAX to claiming “the last vestige” of cinematic showmanship, after the decline of the movie palaces and even cinema curtains pulling aside to reveal the screen. In the cinema itself, it’s certainly a plus that your audience doesn’t need to wear strange glasses to appreciate the spectacle, but they do need a 20-metre-high screen.

While the bigger screen may have to fight for its future, the IMAX brand seems to be pushing its 3D format above all else, as well as emphasising technical specs like sound and even auditorium design. Visit the company’s main website and the focus has shifted almost entirely from size to the third dimension, and specifically its branded format, IMAX 3D.

It seems likely then that the big picture of IMAX will continue to be sidelined except when it captures the fancy of filmmakers with clout, while also occupying the occasional niche of theme park ride. Christopher Nolan will need help to make it anything more.

Nick Goundry