As an avid movie goer, I applaud the recent financial success of Imax — the company that offers movies on giant screens with overwhelming sound. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, within the past two years, box office sales for movies shown on Imax screens have more than tripled, and Imax says it will have 600 screens in operation by the end of 2011, up from 266 in 2005.
Why the growth? Because Imax fulfills a promise that 3D technology still struggles to deliver: make movies on the big screen more fun and immersive.
To me, 3D amounts to gilding a lilly. I don’t miss 3D when I see the same movie with and without it. Toy Story 3 comes to mind. Pixar technology is already stunning in 2D; the animation humanizes Woody and Buzz Light year. 3D on top of Pixar technology is like putting flashy hubcaps on a well designed Mercedes.
But Imax elevates two essential elements of the movie going experience — sight and sound — to a completely different level, something “immersive and massive” in the words of director J.J. Abrams. The world that James Cameron created for Avatar becomes otherwordly when experienced on an Imax screen that is 72 feet wide and 53 feet high, with uncompressed sound delivered in six channels.
The Rolling Stones are something more than a legendary rock band entertaining you from behind a celluloid screen when you see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards light up the Beacon Theatre in the Imax version of the concert film Shine a Light — they are a larger-than-life legendary rock band pulling you into an experience of their creation.
Perhaps 3D represents the long-term future of movies. If so, I hope 3D can become something more than tarted-up special effects and uncomfortable glasses that make you feel like a nerd when you wear them. Fortunately, the financial success of Imax suggests that massive screens and enhanced sound will be part of that future, too.
And that’s something I’m willing to pay extra for — ironically an affirmation of what movies on the big screen were supposed to have been all along until the advent of theaters with screens the size of postage stamps: an experience full of wonder that you cannot get at home.