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Will Apollo 13 Change Big Movies?


Written by: Ryan Kresser
Date: March 2002

What are the ramifications of the IMAX re-release of this blockbuster?


Category: Columns

In the five years or so I’ve been involved with large format films, friends and acquaintances outside the industry have consistently asked one question:

When will we get to see dramatic Hollywood movies on the giant screen?

Disney was first to answer this call, with digital animation: 2000’s Fantasia, followed by this year’s Beauty and the Beast. They’re even producing some original live-action stuff in 70mm due out later this year, like X-Games and Young Black Stallion, which could be breakthroughs. Though attempts have been made at live-action giant screen drama (with very low budgets by Hollywood standards), Young Black Stallion in particular could be the first time true Hollywood story sensibilities are brought to bear on an original live-action large-format production.

Apart from Young Black Stallion, until recently it looked unlikely we’d see any other live-action drama coming to the giant screen anytime soon. The launch of Apollo 13 in IMAX promises to sweep aside this notion in a flaming rush of rocket exhaust. [Editor's Note: See "BMZ Buzz," March 19-22, for more information on the re-release of Apollo 13 by IMAX Corp.)

Using a special process developed by IMAX Corporation, Universal and Imagine Entertainment have announced that they will blow up Ron Howard’s inspiring space drama starring Tom Hanks, and create a new, giant-sized version on 70mm film for IMAX theaters. They’ll also enhance the sound to take advantage of giant screen theaters’ awesome sound systems.

And movies as we know them will instantly be changed forever.

Or will they?

Let’s consider.

First of all, what’s the big deal if lots of Hollywood films are suddenly blown up to IMAX size? What’s so different about the giant screen, anyway? If the obvious answers of bigger, louder, clearer, and more refined aren’t enough, maybe you’re one of our international readers – in America these attributes are generally regarded as sure signs of progress. But I would suggest we consider something further: normal films, even on stadium screens, transpire in front of you within a finite frame. Hence, you’re always subliminally conscious of the fact you’re watching a story about someone else, framed by the reality of your own physical location. Giant screens, on the other hand, extend beyond your peripheral vision, creating an interesting psychological effect: since there is no frame of reference, you feel like you’re IN the picture.

And that’s just 2-D. If you haven’t seen IMAX 3-D yet, you haven’t seen 3-D. For kids brought up today at the dawn of virtual reality, ever-more-real video games, and even cloned human beings, the otherworldly experience possible with 3-D on the giant screen might one day become an essential draw for the cineplex.

But first things first. 3-D costs more to produce, in both time and money. Whether or not it ultimately takes off, live action, giant screen 3-D will be tried, perhaps sooner than later - but for now, the simple notion of blowing up live action 35mm films to true IMAX size is revolutionary in and of itself.

So how will Apollo 13 fare? Assuming it works technically, the likelihood of which has apparently been proven in numerous tests, its prospects should be good - especially with the novelty factor of being the first. Given the current lack of commercially oriented product in the giant-screen marketplace, Apollo 13 will likely get booked on giant screens anchoring multiplexes everywhere. After all, Apocolypse Now Redux was widely distributed, even without the large-screen angle. And E.T has just been revived for normal movie screens, as well. (If E.T. "succeeds", more power to re-purposed IMAX versions – if it fails to perform up to expectations, IMAX Corp. can always argue that "Spielberg should have done it in IMAX.")

For the foreseeable future, with other obviously commercial Big Movies for the most part continuing to be pretty much unavailable (Disney’s few offerings notwithstanding), additional re-purposed Hollywood films will likely be booked by giant screen theaters, as well.

Apart from saving the sluggish commercial Big Movie market, IMAX has high hopes that Apollo 13 will penetrate the museum marketplace, too. At least to some degree, it probably will. (It will be interesting to see how this plays out.) Still, even if Apollo 13 is a smash hit in museums, how many other Hollywood movies are so well-targeted towards museum parameters – especially parameters that in recent years have led to the almost outright rejection of films about Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway (the latter an Academy Award winner), and seem to favor animals, science and technology over people? When the novelty wears off, perhaps even those museums who flirt with re-purposed 35mm movies will ultimately shy away, loathe to take too much heat for being one more Hollywood distribution channel, rather than acting like the temples of erudition and learning they’re supposed to be.

Another interesting wrinkle in all this comes back to something that in my relatively fresh, outsider’s mind has stunted the growth of the industry for a long time: IMAX Corporation’s attempt to retain tight control of every development. IMAX intends to keep this new enlargement and enhancement process proprietary, allowing it to be used only for family films, and allowing those films to be distributed only to the world’s 220 or so IMAX screens, thus cutting out over 100 additional Big Movie theaters, and all kinds of movies consumers would probably love to see on giant screens. Hence, ironically IMAX the Producer’s desire to stay one up on everyone else (and to "protect" the IMAX brand, which to IMAX’s thinking connotes not only "big" and "clear", but "family friendly") holds back a potential flood of new product that could lead to increased attendance, and increased demand for more giant screens. This in turn precludes a new construction boom that would line the pockets of IMAX the Equipment Manufacturer while increasing the number of giant screens everywhere. Of course, it’s only when there are enough screens and the potential return is high enough that Hollywood producers will get the budgets they need to produce groundbreaking original, dramatic features that truly take advantage of the IMAX screen's amazing size and resolution.

It’s not an exact analogy, but by trying to control their technology and censor the types of movies made, IMAX risks becoming another Macintosh operating system – high quality and appreciated by connoisseurs, but ultimately limited in distribution - while another type of technology that’s made readily available to everyone becomes the mainstay of commercial giant screen theaters worldwide.

Of course in the end, none of this will matter a whit to the movie-going public. Technology is just that, and for good or ill, commercial markets are destined to be ruled by commercial tastes. IMAX is simply trying its best to hold back a flood, along with all the bigger ships that will encircle it if the floodgates are opened.

The good news for fans of traditional, educational Big Movies is that as long as there are museums with large-format equipment and auditoriums, giant screen "edutainment" films will continue to be made and shown. (Those who follow the industry have no doubt heard this argument before.) In the long run, if IMAX or other large-format technology eventually spreads to multiplexes everywhere, it remains to be seen what museums will do to stay a step ahead in terms of dazzling museum-goers, and attracting people to the wonderful world of science. After all, these institutions are meant to impress - I’m sure they’ll come up with something – even BIGGER???

In the meantime, installing these massive screens and projection systems remains a serious investment, and producing films for the limited number of screens in existence remains relatively expensive and complicated. So it may be a while yet before a full-scale revolution takes hold. In the interim, museums may even benefit from new filmgoers exposed to re-purposed fare on giant screens in multiplexes, who figure out that heading down to the museum with the kids and catching a cool, original outdoor adventure movie in IMAX might not be half bad.

There is one potential repercussion of the Apollo 13 project that is far more interesting than the fact it will likely be followed by a slew of older Hollywood event films blown up to giant size. Using the same technology, movies produced simultaneously for large-format and 35mm screens may be able to help jump the equation to the next level mentioned above – bringing us live-action, dramatic Hollywood-style films specifically conceived and shot to take maximum advantage of the giant screen. THIS will truly mark the dawn of a new movie-going era. Whether it can be done in a timely fashion with maximum effectiveness using 35mm capture and this new blow-up process remains to be seen. (In fact, whether the blow-up process works effectively for full length features at all remains to be seen.)

Eventually, regardless of what technology it takes to get there, it's likely that all commercial "event" films will be shown on giant screens. Hopefully someday, when the economics of production make sense, the best and most exciting of these films will be quality, original Big Movie dramas MADE for the giant screen, not just re-purposed older films or conventional studio efforts designed to use giant screens as one more ancillary form of distribution. Better and better giant-screen, 3-D animation can also continue to take audiences in surprising new directions. And other new commercial forms might emerge that fit the giant screen. Even though they've never made it as subjects in traditional theaters, extreme sports, music, and stage shows are all being done now as original Big Movie productions. It's not hard for me to imagine the ultimate "art film" in IMAX 3-D, someday - and it's not hard to imagine it being nothing like any other film I've ever seen. Because when the best new "big" movies are truly Big Movies, entertainment will never be the same again!

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