Update: Well, wasn't this rather prescient. Just a few hours after we wrote this story. Steven Spielberg announced in an interview that he was considering shooting his next film, "Robopocalypse," in IMAX.
There has been something of a trend recently for re-releasing older fare in 3D, with Disney and Pixar movies, "Titanic," "Star Wars" and, next summer, "Jurassic Park" and "Independence Day" all getting the treatment. It's the new-money-for-old-rope-approach to the movies, and while these aren't guaranteed phenomenons (although "Titanic" did extraordinarily well internationally, especially in China, and "The Lion King" topped the box office in the U.S. last fall), they've been something of a no-brainer so far, allowing studios to get many millions of dollars through fairly minimal effort.
But today brings news that perhaps the greatest action-adventure movie of at least the last forty years, Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," is getting a one-week-only re-release on September 7th ahead of its Blu-ray release later in the month — not in 3D, but on 70mm IMAX. It's a format personally approved by Spielberg, who told the New York Times, "It’s the only marked contrast we have to the generations that are seeing our movies on phones and hand-held platforms. It’s a complete relief to be able to see a film that many people have just experienced on a palm-sized platform technology, suddenly hurled at that them on an Imax-sized screen." Given it's arriving during the generally quiet period of early September (it's about the same time that "The Lion King" did extremely well in 2011), we imagine it'll make a whole bunch of money.
And it's certainly on-trend at the moment. Both "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" and "The Dark Knight Rises" (like its predecessor, "The Dark Knight") featured extensive scenes not only shown in, but also filmed, in IMAX. Next year, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Star Trek 2" will do the same thing. Most major blockbusters this year have been shown in the format, and even the arthouses are getting in on the act, with Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" being shot mostly on 70mm film (not IMAX, but still a grand occasion), the first major release to do so since Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" in 1996.
And we wonder if it might suggest a turning of the tide to some degree. Eleven of the top 20 grossers of the year so far have been in 3D — twelve internationally, including "Battleship" — but only one of the three movies that have taken more than $250 million domestically was in 3D ("The Hunger Games" and "The Dark Knight Rises" were both in 2D — but were in IMAX). And while 3D continues to boost takings, there continue to be signs that the format is being actively rejected by audiences: only 44% of the opening weekend gross for "The Amazing Spider-Man" came from 3D screens, and despite 70% of screens showing "Ice Age: Continental Drift" being in 3D, a terrible 35% of audiences actually bought tickets in the format.
By contrast, there are just as many IMAX films as 3D pictures in the top 20 grossers, and while only 7% of screens showing "The Amazing Spider-Man" were in IMAX, 10% of the gross came from those theaters. Similarly, "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" made a spectacular $12.8 million from IMAX screenings on only 300 theaters in a limited rollout just before it went wide, making it the third biggest-grossing movie in the country that weekend on a fraction of the screens of its competition. So the question becomes: is IMAX going to outlast 3D?
The benefit that 3D cinema brought, when revitalized by James Cameron's "Avatar" (which also showed on IMAX), was that it made moviegoing feel like an event again. But with 3D pictures coming out seemingly every other weekend, it's now just another part of the moviegoing experience. And as such, the irritations — poor projection, cheap conversions, having to wear glasses, the inflated prices — are becoming greater. Meanwhile, IMAX releases, and especially those like "The Dark Knight Rises" that take full advantage of the format, are still fairly rare. And there's something about the sheer size of the experience (including the rattling sound), that makes it feel more and more like a real moviegoing experience.
As such, it has the gross-inflating advantages of 3D, but for the most part, without the negative connotations. And a one-week-only release of a film like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" seems to make perfect sense; it'll raise awareness of the film's Blu-ray release, and the studio get to make another ten million dollars or so. And although Spielberg says he has no further plans for something like this, we can certainly see it becoming more and more common in future.
Of course, there are risks. Like with 3D, most IMAX releases are not "true" IMAX releases, but have been digitally converted to fit most (but not all) of the screens. And even worse, many IMAX theaters aren't true IMAX theaters either, using the brand on smaller, digital screens, which increasingly risks harming the reputation of the format in general. And of course, as with 3D, the more films hit in the format, the less special it'll become, and the less it'll feel like something special.
3D isn't going away any time soon, but it certainly seems to be following the same peaks and troughs that it has in its previous revivals in the 1950s and 1980s. IMAX (which is, it should be said, partially tied to 3D), meanwhile, has only become more and more popular since "The Polar Express" pioneered the modern use of the format in studio films nearly a decade ago, and we suspect it's going to be around for a little longer. But what do you think? Is IMAX the real format of the future, or are you on team 3D? Or is it all just a temporary measure caused by the movie industry's fear of Internet piracy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.