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THE BIG PICTURE

Imax flap over screen size marks opportunity to own up

As Aziz Ansari so recently fumed about, not all Imax theaters are the same. The company's ambitious growth strategy should include letting moviegoers in on theater details.

May 26, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Apparently, size does matter.

As you may remember, comedian and "Parks and Recreation" costar Aziz Ansari recently caused a huge flap when he put up an outraged post on his blog excoriating Imax after he went to see "Star Trek" in Burbank -- and discovered that the supposedly giant Imax screen was barely any bigger than an average-size theater screen. Feeling ripped off (after all, he'd paid an extra $5), he blasted Imax for "duping" its customers and "whoring out their brand name." What's worse, everyone in the blogosphere picked up the story, adding snarky touches of their own, resulting in a full-bore PR disaster for the company.

It couldn't have come at a worse time, since Imax -- known for its super-size screens, crystal-clear images and enhanced sound -- is in the midst of a dramatic expansion campaign as it transforms itself from a haven for specialized nature and space films to a preferred fanboy and family destination for high-end, digitally projected Hollywood blockbusters. Executives say they are putting Imax technology into two to three new theaters across the U.S. each week.

When Imax opened "The Dark Knight" last July, the film played in 94 U.S. theaters, all using traditional film projection. When "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" opened last week, it screened in 160 Imax theaters (78 of which offering digital projection). By the time James Cameron's "Avatar" arrives in December, Imax will be showing the film in roughly 220 theaters. (There are considerably more Imax theaters -- at last count, 371 theaters in more than 40 countries -- that show a variety of films in addition to Hollywood fare.)

This growth spurt of new screens is possible because Imax has entered into profit-sharing agreements with various theater chains, allowing the company to speed the expansion of its network by retrofitting existing theaters instead of constructing stand-alone structures. But if moviegoers think they're getting ripped off, the Imax growth strategy could be severely hamstrung. Perhaps that's why Imax CEO Richard Gelfond asked me to have lunch with him last week, eager to clear the air about the screen-size controversy. (I guess the headline "Is It a Big Screen or a Big Scam?" on my blog caught his attention.)

Over sandwiches at Imax's Santa Monica headquarters, Gelfond got right to the point. He continues to insist that Imax enjoys enormous customer satisfaction, backing up the claim with a market-research study that found that 98% of Imax moviegoers had enjoyed their experience at the new, medium-size theaters as much as at the older giant screens.

But he says he's taking nothing for granted. "The bottom line is: We're listening to our customers. We're commissioning a study from a Hollywood market research firm, who's going to see how big of an issue this is. Is it just a few bloggers or is there really a bigger adverse audience reaction?"

I'm a little suspicious of polling, as the person or corporation who commissions the poll usually gets the desired results. So I asked Gelfond why Imax doesn't simply offer more truth in advertising. If the hot-button issue is theater size, why not put up signage outside its theaters that tells consumers what size the theater screen is?

I wasn't sure at first whether I had made any headway. Gelfond initially hedged, saying "we're thinking about doing that kind of thing." He was concerned that simply identifying the screen size might be somewhat misleading, since in the retrofitted theaters, the first few rows of seating have been removed, allowing the screen to be closer to moviegoers, which Gelfond says provides an enhanced cinema experience.

"The screen might only be 55 feet, but in that setting, it looks like it's 80 feet," he explained.

However, when we had a second conversation the day after our lunch, Gelfond was more resolute. "I want to be clear," he said. "We're going to do something about disclosing information. Period. The market research survey is really just to help figure out what to do, not if we should do something. We are going to give people more information -- it's just a matter of how and where."

That would be good news. Imax is a great format. It doesn't make a bad movie any better, as anyone who saw "Monsters vs. Aliens" at an Imax theater could attest. But seeing "The Dark Knight" in Imax was a spectacular, totally immersive experience. Moviegoers have been voting with their feet. Gelfond says that even though Imax is only showing "Star Trek" on less than 2% of the film's overall screens, the movie is doing roughly 16% of its business at Imax theaters. Last Wednesday night, "Star Trek" did 19% of its business in Imax.

Gelfond says the company will only install Imax into the largest screen in a theater complex. "There has to be a minimum amount of seats and screen capability," he says. "If we're not the biggest theater in the multiplex and the location doesn't meet our threshold, we turn them down. We've done it a lot. We don't cut corners."

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