Odeon brings IMAX digital to Europe – the future of cinema has arrived

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Imax.jpgOdeon cinemas has teamed up with IMAX to build the first IMAX digital theatres in Europe. They’ll open for business in Wimbledon and Greenwich today, but that didn’t stop me having a sneaky look yesterday morning at what we can expect from cinema 2.0.

Traditionally, IMAX projectors have used 70mm film which is difficult and expensive to shoot, process, transport, play and finally store. The new digital system has none of these problems. The cameras used to make IMAX films don’t have to be ridiculously specialised anymore, like these old lumps with the whopping great cans on the back, which means that more filmmakers are shooting their pictures with IMAX theatres in mind.

So, if IMAX used to be about large format film on even larger screens, then when the film stock is removed from the equation, how do we define the experience ? Well, first of all IMAX digital involves two projectors – two 2K projectors that is with each one around four times better resolution than any top end home hardware. You can have a look at them and the rest of the backstage kit in the vid after the jump.

The projectors have IMAX lenses too and, as you may or may not have heard above the noise of the fans, each is specially crafted to fit the cinemas they’re made for.

When normal 2D films are being shown, both projectors fire out the same images pixel on pixel to maximise the richness of colour and boost the resolution. It doesn’t add up to a 4K image but 2.9K might be somewhere near it.

In 3D mode special filters go over the lenses and the projectors work independently as the right eye and left eye images.

The, in Greenwich’s case, 15m x 8m screen is slightly curved putting the audience more central to the film, somewhere toward wrapping itself around the beholder but it’s the sound that I found most impressive. The enormous stack in the vid might give you some clue as to the kind of output they use. Like with the lenses, the speakers for each theatre are tailor made at IMAX engineering HQ in Canada and laser aligned on site to increase the sweet spot of the sound as far as possible. It’s a proper treat for the ears.

It was quick from listening to the CEO of Odeon, Rupert Gavin, this morning that if the IMAX format is available, it’s well worth screening. On a one print, one screen basis, the IMAX 3D version of Beowulf made £95,000 at the box office whereas the 2D copies made just a fraction at £10,000. The effect may not be so pronounced for every film but the average has still proved to 3:1 title by title. If you’re a cinema owner, it makes pretty quick sense.

It cost Odeon £1.5million to convert the two screens into IMAX digital theatres. They expect to make around £360,000 per film rather than the usual £120,000. They’ll be screening a different film every month, so with each screen costing £750,000, they’ll have made their money back by the beginning of February and raking in an extra half a million each month.

Of course, all of this extra revenue isn’t just bums on seats. Each bum itself pays a lot more to sit there. The standard peak time price for an IMAX viewing at Greenwich will be £11.50 – not cheap for a family outing but still less per ticket than the BFI’s IMAX at Waterloo where a seat will cost you £13.

But whether or not you believe it’s a fair price, cinemas have finally woken up to a way of getting punters back in and in their droves. IMAX and particularly IMAX 3D is not an experience you can download. They showed us a clip from The Watchmen amongst other titles. It looked incredible. It sounded incredible and there’s no way on Earth I’m going to sully the experience by watching it on my laptop or paying some geezer for a knock off DVD to play on my big screen TV. With more and more blockbusters filmed with IMAX in mind you’re just not going to get the same effect unless you get up and shell out.

The thing I couldn’t help wondering though, was what does this mean for cinema as a whole; the industry, showbusiness? If IMAX digital proves a successful draw, as it has in America, then most theatres will show IMAX films and that’s all Hollywood will churn out – big action blockbusters or 3D fantasy adventures.

I still want to watch these films but I want dramas too. I want quirky, black comedies, alternative feel good pictures. I want all of it but what’s the likelihood of smaller movies like Sideways getting green lit? Will there still be small picture houses showing the works of independent studios? Will good films go straight to video or is this where Vod comes in; new releases straight to your tube?

I don’t necessarily see this as something bleak but as an interesting change. I’m quite happy watching Sideways on my home TV, I didn’t need to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind in my local Cineworld, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on the Watchmen in IMAX digital come March.

IMAX is not necessarily the be all an end all, the saviour of cinema but it’s a good sign of the film industry giving up on the fight against piracy and focusing on what it is they do best. The business wasn’t made what it is by lawyers but by filmmakers an d if they continue to brace technology and and bring us that spectacular then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go from strength to strength. Let’s hope the music industry sees the same sense, but if you want to know more about that, there’s a man you should be chatting to every Friday.

Odeon

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Daniel Sung

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