Friday, January 20, 2012

I Have Seen the Future of Theatrical Exhibition

And its name is IMAX.

OK so IMAX has been around for a while now but it has only recently started to be regularly adopted by mainstream Hollywood with films like The Dark Knight having entire segments shot specifically for the IMAX format.

The most recent big budget spectacle to embrace the format is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Many of the reviews for this film have mentioned the visual impact some of the scenes have in IMAX, and having recently seen the film in said format I must concur.

So what's great about IMAX? Mostly, it's all about one thing - the screen size. It's simply enormous and at a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the conventional 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 ratios one finds at cinemas, it fills out significant space in both the horizontal and the vertical. MI:GP is presented mostly in standard format but occasionally there are sequences shot in full blown IMAX where the screen expands vertically to fill most of your field of vision, creating a feeling of being 'in' the film in a way the much vaunted future of cinema Hollywood is pushing so aggressively, 3D, could only dream of doing (in its current form at any rate).

The much vaunted Burj Khalifa tower sequence in this film, for instance, is breathtaking and lives up to the hype, a rare feat in big budget blockbusters. Shots of the cityscape of Dubai taken from the vertiginous upper floors of the tower are among the film's highlights and help create an edge of your seat experience as Tom Cruise and/or his stunt double dangles precariously alongside the tower (no CGI stuntmen here as far as I could tell). Doubtless part of the reason these scenes are so effective is due to the director, cinematographer, and editor's stellar work, but to say that IMAX enhances the effect would be an understatement. To say it doesn't would be an outright falsehood. Apart from the screen size the audio formats are also different and the quality of the audio presentation is also among the best I've heard.

The cost of watching something in IMAX does set you back a bit more than a regular cinema, but that slight markup makes for a markedly better experience that is, in my humble opinion, worthwhile. Disclaimer: I've only been to one IMAX cinema, the BFI in London, which is quite highly regarded. I am aware that there are some 'IMAX' screens that are apparently not up to the mark in terms of screen size. Caveat Emptor!

In short I would like this to be the future of theatrical exhibition. Even the regular non IMAX sequences are still more impactful at this scale than on a regular cinema screen. Most of the features of regular theatrical exhibition can now be replicated in one's living room with a decent screen or projector, surround sound system and a blu-ray player, and the cost of buying or renting a blu-ray is significantly less than that of going out to the movies. And considering the quality of some cinema halls out there, the living room experience can sometimes be the superior one! With IMAX, however, you get something that you simply can't recreate at home (unless you're amongst the vile 1%).

Multiplex cinemas are dying a slow death at the moment, and perhaps this is how it should be. There are so many alternative forms of leisure activity and means of consuming media like films that in order for it to survive the theatrical experience must change. The reality is that the world has changed and the industry needs to get with the program. Perhaps only the die hards will pay a premium to enjoy the communal experience of being in a cinema hall watching a film in IMAX with fellow like minded cinephiles. Instead of being a pastime for the masses (like those who keep their phone on and talk during the film) it'll be an activity only real fans will indulge in, while everyone else consumes content on their home television setup, or on their phone or tablet computer. You'll pay a bit more but it'll be much more of an event than going to the cinema is right now.

This may mean that theatrical exhibition ends up being a relative niche market with films primarily being distributed online and on disc in parallel or shortly after their cinema release dates, but if that meant an improvement in the quality of the experience, then so what? The industry has monetised physical media distribution quite well, and if it figured out how to leverage online distribution as effectively there may yet be an equilibrium where the industry stays alive through a combination of a smaller premium theatrical presentation in conjunction with many other distribution mechanisms, which would allow people to continue to enjoy films through their preferred devices. That's my $0.02 on this subject!

As for the film, MI:GP was very good, my second favourite of the series after the first one. I wouldn't buy it or even watch it again, but it does what it says on the tin by being an effective action thriller with some terrific action sequences, a strong ensemble cast and a story line that is propulsive and makes some kind of sense (as opposed to part 3 where the heroes race against the clock to acquire some indeterminate thing). In case you didn't get the hint, I'd recommend watching it in IMAX, it's quite the experience!

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