When people in Melbourne think of IMAX theatres, the massive screen at the Melbourne Museum in Carlton should come to mind. I can still remember my first visit when I was about 10 years old: making my way down the longest escalator I had ever seen, to see a screen so big it filled my entire field of view.
Opened in 1998, Melbourne Museum has the 3rd largest IMAX screen in the world – 32 metres wide by 23 metres high. In Australia only Sydney beats it – number 1 in the world at 35.7 metres wide by 29.7 metres high.
Meanwhile out in the Melbourne suburbs, Hoyts operate an ‘IMAX’ theatre at Highpoint Shopping Centre, that opened on Boxing Day 2008. So how do the two compare?
From a price perspective Melbourne Museum is the more expensive one – on a Saturday night it will cost you $26.50 per adult to see the 3D version of 1986 film ‘Top Gun‘ at Melbourne Museum, compared to $23.00 per adult to see the new release ‘A Good Day To Die Hard‘ in 3D over at Hoyts Highpoint.
But what about projection quality and screen size? This is where the big differences emerge – Melbourne Museum uses the 70mm projectors and a massive screen that IMAX is known for, while Hoyts Highpoint uses a cut down ‘IMAX Digital’ system that retrofited a 17 metre wide screen in a standard theatre auditorium with two IMAX supplied Christie 2K projectors and a bigger than normal surround sound system.
The difference in equipment also changes the economic of running the theatre – a standard IMAX theatre costs $7 million to build, while an existing theatre can be converted and fitted with a cheaper digital projector for just $2.3 million. In addition dropping film from the equation also removes the need for physical reels – a standard IMAX film print can cost up to $60,000.
The end result – the ‘IMAX’ experience at Hoyts Highpoint might be better that the other screens in the multiplex, but it is still inferior to that seen at Melbourne Museum.
The introduction of ‘IMAX Digital’ is detailed in ‘Is IMAX the next “New Coke”?‘ – a 2008 editorial by James Hyder that was published in ‘LF Examiner’ – the journal of the large format motion picture industry:
In September 2008, Richard Gelfond, co-CEO of Imax Corporation, told members of the Giant Screen Cinema Association that “we don’t think of [IMAX] as the giant screen.” Rather, he said, “it is the best immersive experience on the planet.”
The company takes this position because it has chosen not to differentiate its new digital projection system in any way from the 15/70 film systems it has been installing in giant-screen theatres since 1970. This despite the fact that, according to Imax VP Larry O’Reilly, its two major digital partners, AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment Group, both originally wanted to brand the new screens as ‘IMAX Digital.’ And based on the reaction Gelfond’s announcement received in New York (and on many conversations I’ve had since) many, if not most, institutional IMAX operators would prefer this as well. In short, virtually all of Imax’s customers and partners would like to see a distinct new identity for the digital system.
But Gelfond flatly rejected this possibility, offering an absurdly flawed analogy with BMW automobiles. He said that the German carmaker offers the 7-series line of larger, more powerful, luxury models as well as the smaller, entry-level 3-series cars. “People don’t say ‘The 3 isn’t a real BMW because it’s smaller.’”
Hyder then gives an example especially relevant to Melbourne:
Yet this is the position in which IMAX is now putting customers who pay $15 to see films at (for instance) New York City’s AMC Empire 25 IMAX digital theatre, with its 28×58-foot (8.5×18 meter) screen. They see the IMAX name on the theatre and have no idea until after their ticket has been torn and they walk into the auditorium that that screen is about the same size as the one in the adjacent 35mm auditorium, and less than a quarter the size of the one in the AMC Lincoln Square IMAX 15/70 theatre, 26 blocks away. The screen in the older film theatre is 76×98 feet (23×30 meters).
So the moral of the story? IMAX is not always what it seems, and that if you want to watch a movie on a massive screen, the Melbourne Museum is the only place to go.
And a footnote
There are two other types of big screen at Melbourne’s cinema multiplexes:
- Village Cinemas ‘Vmax’ at Knox City is 28 metres wide and 12 metres high.
- Hoyts ‘Xtremescreen’ at Melbourne Central is 23 metres wide by 9.5 metres high.
Melbourne’s IMAX theatres
- Eyes on the prize: cinemas decide bigger is better
From The Age. Melissa Kent. March 8, 2009
- The bigger screen
From The Age. Matt Holden. June 29, 2012
- Is IMAX the next “New Coke”?
From LF Examiner
- Q&A: How Do I Know If My IMAX Theatre is Real 70mm IMAX or lieMAX (Digital IMAX)?