Imax movie theaters, those giant-screen wonders that are typically found in museums and theme parks, are coming to Main Street with the help of Sony.
Since Sony opened a 3-D theater with an eight-story-tall screen inside its Lincoln Square cineplex in Manhattan, it has become the gem of the 121-theater Imax circuit, with sellout crowds nearly every weekend.
Next month, Sony's New Technologies division will take it one step further with the opening of "Wings of Courage," a movie made by a mainstream director with bankable Hollywood stars, including "Top Gun" hunk Val Kilmer. But "Wings" distinguishes itself from typical Imax fare--usually films about topics in science and nature--with an actual plot .
"Our goals with this medium are to take it to new heights, to bring in major Hollywood directors and known actors, and most of all to use the medium to tell stories, which has not been the case in the past," said Mitchell Cannold, president of Sony New Technologies in New York.
"Wings of Courage" is an adventure and love story about three pioneer aviators who made airmail flights across the treacherous Andes mountain range in 1930. As if being shown on an 80-foot by 100-foot screen were not flashy enough, director Jean-Jacques Annaud--who also made "The Lover" and "The Bear"--shot the film with advanced 3-D technology that puts the old red-and-blue goggles to shame.
For Sony, it's an attempt to draw consumers into its theaters in the face of expected competition from such home entertainment options as movies-on-demand, high-definition television and the ability to access hundreds of cable channels.
"We need to explore new things we can do for our customers, things they can't get in the home," said Larry Ruisi, president of Sony Retail Entertainment in New York. "Obviously, large screens fit into that category."
Nobody expects giant-screen features to replace today's movie formats, but Sony executives say they hope it will become a centerpiece for entertainment complexes in major cities across the world. In their view, patrons will pay $1 or $2 extra to see a 40-minute film on an Imax screen, particularly if it is embellished with 3-D visual and sound effects.
But making giant-screen features a part of that strategy is a tremendously expensive proposition. It requires construction of new theaters in mainstream locations and the production of films to go in them all at the same time--what Ruisi calls a classic "chicken and the egg" quandary.
"We need the theaters to play the movies, and if we don't have the theaters it doesn't make sense to make movies," he said.
It also takes many years to reap a profit. A typical Imax movie is in theatrical circulation for at least five years while the revenue comes trickling in. A typical Hollywood film may be in theaters for a few weeks or months, but after that can be sold to television or home video to help recoup the cost.
Last year, 50 million people paid roughly $200 million to see Imax films in 121 theaters in museums, science centers and theme parks around the world, including 55 in the United States. Most of those movie-goers saw films like "To the Limit," a film about human biology, and "Destiny In Space," about the American space program.
"Since the success of the New York theater--which I think frankly took Sony by surprise as well as us--there's been a significant amount of interest in the commercialization of the Imax technology throughout all the larger multiplex circuits," said Imax Chairman Bradley Wechsler, who has had discussions with representatives of many major theater chains.
Interest in commercializing the giant-screen format has sent stock in Toronto-based Imax up more than 60% since February, said Charles Ronson, publisher of IPO Value Monitor in New York. Last week's announcement that entertainment-friendly Nobuyuki Idei will become Sony's next president will only help the momentum of the Sony-Imax alliance, analysts say.
Also standing to benefit are Burbank-based Iwerks Entertainment and Showscan Entertainment in Culver City. Both companies have divisions for making giant-screen movies, and the Sony-produced films could run in some of their theaters.
In addition to the theater in Lincoln Square, which opened in November, Sony has plans to build commercial Imax theaters in San Francisco and Berlin, with another half-dozen sites to follow by the turn of the century. Iwerks is building a theater at Chicago's commercial Navy Pier that is compatible with Imax's 3-D format.
Sony executives won't say how much they have invested in the Imax format, but observers estimate it's at least $100 million so far. "Wings of Courage" reportedly cost about $15 million, roughly half the price for the average Hollywood flick.
If "Wings of Courage" is a commercial success, it could bring more giant-screen features to mainstream audiences faster by encouraging other entertainment companies to invest in the format.
But they will have to invest substantial sums of money to build theaters, which makes the pace toward widespread commercialization sluggish, said Stan Kinsey, chairman of Iwerks Entertainment.
"It's a half-billion-dollar effort someone would have to commit to get enough theaters in major markets and to commit to enough films," Kinsey said. "In another decade, it may be very much a part of the daily experience."
In the Los Angeles area, there is an Imax theater at the Museum of Science and Industry, but it will be years before one opens in a commercial venue here, mostly because the Sony Theatres chain is concentrated outside Southern California, Ruisi said.
Analysts say that the commercial success of Imax-style movies depends on the ability of movie-makers to tell stories on the giant screen.
Annaud likened Imax's position to that of Louis and Auguste Lumiere, the French brothers who brought motion pictures to the general public at the turn of the century. At first, they drew crowds by showing documentary-style films about royal coronations and hunting expeditions. But once people were used to the technology, the Lumieres lost audiences to others who used it to tell stories, and competition eventually sent the brothers into bankruptcy.
Although it meant less money, Annaud said it wasn't hard to persuade himself or his leading actors to make an Imax movie.
"They were thrilled," he said. "Most people in this industry are bored of being offered the same part, directors are complaining that they are always offered the same kind of movies, and studio executives are reading the same kinds of scripts."
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The Imax Experience
After dipping sharply in February, Imax stock has climbed. Weekly closes since the company went public in June, 1994:
Thursday: $10.50, down 12.5 cents
Imax hopes to expand at traditional multiplexes. Location of theaters:
Theme parks: 16%
Commercial and other*: 26.2%
* Includes zoos, aquariums, temporary and destination sites.