Posted by: Kenji Hall on July 1, 2008
I’m sitting in the dark watching the opening scene of Speed Racer play out on a silver screen that’s nearly twice the size of an NFL end zone. Suddenly, Greg Foster, Chairman and President of filmed entertainment at IMAX, turns in his seat and whispers: “Have you ever seen such a clear picture on a screen that big?” Actually, I had never seen a screen that big.
And I wasn’t alone. Though the screen wasn’t a record-breaker by IMAX standards, company officials said it was the largest they had ever set up for an event. Warner Bros. and IMAX had the screen—measuring 40 meters wide and 18 meters across (130 feet by 60 feet)—made just for the Japan premiere of Speed Racer, at the Tokyo Dome on Sunday night. It was so big, IMAX had to rent seven heavy-duty cranes—two 55-ton and five 25-ton—to hold up the screen and speakers and spent more than a day setting up the system and building the scaffolding to house the one-ton IMAX film projector on a platform three stories up.
For the 25,000 people seated on the baseball infield and in the stands, it was an impressive show—as you might expect. After all, this was show biz. Such glitzy events don’t come cheap, though. No IMAX executive would talk about the costs, but when I said that it must have cost a fortune to Neil Robbin, a burly Australian with a silver ponytail who installs IMAX projectors around the world, Robbin replied: “Oh yea.”
It was the kind of extravagant display that you would put on to make a point. In this case, the point was advertising. Only 11 of the 299 theaters (in 39 countries) around that world that IMAX leases its projectors and technology to are located in Japan. But IMAX execs are betting that will change soon, now that they have begun filling orders from theaters for newly developed digital projectors. They’re hoping digital projectors will be key to turning things around from last year’s $27 million net loss, the second consecutive loss.
The switch to digital technology has been several years in the making. Back in 2002, IMAX began using a low-cost method for converting Hollywood movies on 35-mm film to the 70-mm IMAX format. The hope was that theaters would lease IMAX’s projectors and other technology in order to show blockbuster films in IMAX format. That’s still how the company earns much of its $116 million in revenues. (Europe, Japan and other countries outside the U.S. and Canada account for a third of overall revenues.)
But the company had two problems in its bid to woo Hollywood. The first was its image as a purveyor of films about “whales, bears and seals.” “For a while, we just couldn’t break through the old IMAX image,” Foster said.
The other issue was momentum. Theater operators were reluctant to add more IMAX screens without Hollywood’s commitment to the format, while studios weren’t ready to sign on to IMAX unless there was greater acceptance among theaters. In Japan, there’s the added difficulty of finding enough affordable space in the country’s crowded cities to house a giant IMAX screen. So what’s different now? A drop in box-office ticket sales and the availability of large-screen TVs and home-entertainment systems has made theater chains desperate to lure back movie-goers. And new partnerships with Warner Bros. and DreamWorks Animation SKG have given IMAX a lineup that’s broader than the old Discovery Channel fare. On June 6, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda opened at 89 U.S. theaters and six overseas, and 30 more locations outside the U.S. are expected to show the film in the coming weeks.
The company's technicians now take just seven to 10 days to convert an entire movie to the IMAX format, compared to the three months it took to remaster Apollo 13, in 2002. Less time generally means lower costs (though it's hard to say for sure since nobody would confirm for me what the costs were). Now that the company is shifting away from film altogether, the cost of leasing or buying IMAX equipment for theaters could fall even further. Since the beginning of this year, IMAX has signed deals with theaters in the Philippines, South and Central America, Dubai and Russia. "The biggest problem isn't getting the films," Foster said. "It's figuring out whom we say 'no' to."
The Speed Racer premiere in Tokyo was one way of showing the potential of IMAX's technology. But not everything went off without a hitch. At the start, the picture seemed out of focus, and for several minutes it got progressively worse. Seated one row in front of me, Foster and other IMAX execs were shifting nervously and whispering to each other. Then Foster jumped out of his chair and headed off in the direction of the IMAX projector behind us. Within minutes the picture sharpened.
What happened upstairs in the projector control room? During testing a day earlier Tokyo Dome had been empty. Thousands of people inside the stadium had made the heat and humidity inside the makeshift projector room higher than anyone had anticipated. "The projector lens fogged up just like a car window would on a cold day," said Robbin. "The projector's automatic focus tried to overcompensate. We fixed it by overriding the system."