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The Imax 3-D train has left the station

Special to The Times

“The Polar Express” represents one of the biggest Hollywood fiascos of 2004 -- a ballyhooed $170-million movie touted for its potential to “revolutionize” the industry was instead trounced by the competition during its first whistle stop. But a funny thing happened on the way to the animated Christmas tale’s dismal $23.3-million opening weekend.

The Warner Bros. film has become the most successful movie released in Imax 3D.

Although not exactly obliterating the previous Imax record -- the $1.9 million pulled in last summer during the Imax debut of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” -- the recent $2.1-million debut for “The Polar Express” is a solid performance, especially considering it is showing in only 59 Imax theaters across North America, said Greg Foster, president and chairman of Imax Filmed Entertainment.

“ ‘Polar’ is going to be the biggest-grossing Imax movie of all time,” said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Fellman also expects “Polar” to become a bellwether for the wider money-making potential of a relatively new movie distribution platform.

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Ticket sales for the traditional 35mm version of “The Polar Express” remain sluggish leading into the holiday season. But the version of the movie that has been animated to include Imax 3D special effects continues to sell out Imax venues across America. Showings at the Henry Ford Theater in Dearborn, Mich. for instance, are sold out through mid-January. And at the Lincoln Square Imax theater in New York, no tickets are available until late December.

With movies such as “The Polar Express,” Imax has begun shedding its stodgy image as an outlet for educational documentaries such as “Blue Planet” and “Destiny in Space.” Within the last four years, the company has moved beyond the museums and science centers where many of its screens reside and is making its presence known at the neighborhood cineplex.

That’s largely a result of new technology. In postproduction, 35mm films can now be digitally remastered using the company’s complex mathematical software to fit Imax’s gigantic screens, which measure up to eight stories high and 120 feet wide. The transfer also reformats normal movie film to fit Imax projectors, which can handle dual strips of 15/70 mm, the largest existing film format, at 24 frames per second. The result is a super-sized, seemingly three-dimensional viewing experience that can be exhilarating and immersive -- if not downright dizzying.

As a result, movie studios including Warner Bros., Universal and 20th Century Fox are using the platform to “event-ize” the release or rerelease of special-effects-driven films such as “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” “Matrix Revolutions” and “Spider-Man 2.”

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“Three things drive what we do,” Foster said. “Picture, size and sound. When you’re able to combine that with the 3-D element, the public wants to embrace it.”

New process widens prospects

The relatively sudden interest in Imax’s product can be traced to digital remastering, or DMR -- the transfer that allows existing movies to play on the company’s specialized screens.

“The DMR process is what makes these images look so good,” said Bruce Snyder, head of distribution at 20th Century Fox, which, with Lucasfilm, released “Attack of the Clones.” “When you fill the screen with 15 by 70 [-mm images], it’s great vision. And now they can do that frame by frame.”

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Before the advent of DMR, Fellman pointed out, the quality of 35mm transfers to Imax screens left much to be desired. “It was a different process,” he remembered. “They’d give us an extra print and run it on the Imax at midnight. It would come out kind of grainy.”

To hear it from Foster, Imax is making good on the original dream of company co-founder Graeme Ferguson, who long envisioned using the Imax platform to show commercial movies and not just educational documentaries. Imax is now positioning itself to become a prestige-brand counterpart to regular theater programming -- one also capable of adding value to a movie’s theatrical run.

Foster adds that market research has shown people watch the movie once or twice in 35mm, and then “come back and see a film a third and fourth time in Imax.”

Warner Bros. has had more experience working with Imax than have most other studios. It released the two “Matrix” sequels and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” on Imax. Warner Bros.’ Fellman said he is well aware of theater owners wary about the “day and date,” or concurrent, release of Imax and 35mm prints of movies. Those fears, though, haven’t materialized.

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“They were concerned that some people would go there [to Imax] and it would cannibalize their gross,” he said. “But there aren’t that many Imax screens around, so it wasn’t a big factor.”

“There are two different audiences: People that don’t mind paying the additional money, and then those that find the Imax experience difficult to watch. It may be overwhelming. Some fans simply prefer 35.”

Although many Imax theaters in learning centers refuse to play theatrical releases -- in particular, movies rated PG and above -- many of the 140 Imax theaters in 35 countries are being constructed in areas where traditional moviegoers are more likely to be found.

“We’ve started building theaters in multiplexes,” Foster said. “Before, the bulk of our theaters were in museums and science centers, and over the course of the last 10 years, we’ve transferred our growth into multiplexes.”

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‘Polar’ as prototype

Foster calls “The Polar Express” “the right first film” to integrate the company’s digital 3-D into its production process.

In the Imax 3D version of “Polar Express,” steam rises from a radiator and floats out into the theater, snowflakes seem to fall in viewers’ laps, and, at one point, the Polar Express locomotive’s pointed rail sweeper protrudes up and off the screen, appearing as if it looms dangerously close to the audience’s collective jugulars.

During the film’s “Glacier Gulch” sequence, when the train makes its out-of-control descent down a steep grade, the 3D experience is disorientingly close to that of a roller coaster.

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“What it took was a film that had the technology that this film has -- it lends naturally to what we do,” Foster said. “With an animated film, it’s easier. But I hope to be having this conversation again in three or five years: For the first time a live-action film has been shot in Imax 3D.”

Perhaps appropriately, the movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, took one of his first jobs out of film school on an early Imax film, “Man Belongs to Earth.” It was made by company co-founders Ferguson and Roman Kroitor for the 1974 World’s Fair.

In large part because Imax effects work so well with the computer-generated animation in “The Polar Express,” according to Foster, word of mouth about the Imax version of the film has been much more positive than the mixed reviews the 35mm version has been getting.

Fellman is cautiously optimistic about the film’s long-term prospects based on Imax titles that have played in theaters years after their release.

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“We’ll see what happens from here because these movies are playing in such a limited amount of theaters [that] it takes awhile to maximize your box office. But these movies can play for an extremely long time, since they’re extremely exclusive. Some of them play over a year and then you can bring them back.”

Toward that end, the nearly 30-year-old Imax title “To Fly” has grossed more than $100 million, and the 2 1/2 year-old “Space Station,” narrated by Tom Cruise, has generated more than $80 million in box office sales. “NASCAR” hit theaters in March and remains in release.

“A movie like ‘Polar Express’ could play every Christmas and always do well,” Fellman said, adding that the studio is in co-production with Imax on an underwater educational documentary called “Denizens of the Deep.”

“ ‘The Polar Express’ is a turtle and not a rabbit,” Foster said.

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