This is the story of a movie revolution going wrong; so wrong, in the UK at least, that it probably won't be coming to a cinema near you. Imax, the huge-screen format ideal for displaying the blow-your-mind, in-your-face special effects of Hollywood blockbusters, is in trouble.
Last week, one of Britain's nine Imax theatres closed, and others around the country are struggling to attract audiences. Industry experts say the high cost of buying the films has left theatres with small profit margins, while the high ticket prices for punters - with shows often twice as expensive as normal films but half the length - have contributed to Imax's problems.
The lack of Hollywood films made in the correct format has left Imax with a constant diet of impressive, yet worthy, nature documentaries to display on its giant 70ft by 50ft screens. Apollo 13 and the most recent Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, have both been digitally remastered for the Imax screen, but only once they have been and gone at regular cinemas. Last summer a digitally remastered version of The Matrix Reloaded showed how successful Imax could be, playing to packed-out audiences around the country.
But even The Matrix could not save Birmingham's Imax theatre. Last week, it and its projector - the size of a Vauxhall Vectra - went out of business after losing £600,000 in a year and playing to audiences as small as four. Its demise left the UK's second city without an Imax screen within a 100-mile radius.
Mike Dernie, a spokesman for Millennium Point, the complex where the Imax was based, blamed the theatre's failure on the lack of quality and quantity of films available in the format. "It's a harder product to sell than the normal cinematic experience," he said. "They tend to be more worthy films rather than entertainment."
Yet in the US, the steady diet of nature documentaries has proved popular with Imax audiences. Everest, for instance, has so far grossed $78m (£44m), and T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous, Space Station 3-D, Mysteries of Egypt and Across the Sea of Time are other documentaries in America's all-time Imax box-office top 10.
The Imax Corporation admitted its disappointment with the format's performance in the UK. Larry O'Reilly, Imax's senior vice-president of theatre development and film distribution, said: "Many of the UK theatres may not be ideally placed in the city. The institutions tend to be strapped for cash and have little marketing budget. We are a little disappointed with the box office in the UK. It lags behind other countries in Europe. The box office over the past two years has been lower than we originally expected."
Tracey Guiry, commercial director at Bristol's Imax Theatre, which doesn't expect to break even until this year, admitted that the format hasn't taken off in the UK in the way that the industry expected. "It hasn't struck a chord with UK audiences like it has in the US," she said. "It's pitched at an expensive end of the market. We just didn't realise how very expensive it is.
"They are still the best cinematic pictures you can get in the world. For the purists it will remain unbeatable - but that doesn't point to a growth market, which is a worry."
Mark Robinson, general manager of the Sheridan Imax Theatre in Bournemouth, also expressed concern. "They are difficult to make work all year round," he said. "The product doesn't really appeal to your average cinema-goer. It's a visitor attraction. We do well at weekends and in the holidays, but the films are incredibly expensive for cinemas to buy in."
According to Patrick von Sychowski, senior media analyst at trade publication Screen Digest, Imax will never be more than a niche market in the UK. "We will be seeing more closures. It will always be a niche. And at the moment it's a struggling niche. The problem with Imax is they are in a difficult transition. They were doing a steady stream of worthy documentaries and now they're trying to do entertainment. But they haven't been fully embraced by the Friday night cinema-goers. They'll have to scale back their ambitions."
Celluloid sounds and smells
Imax is not the first attempt to make movies more lifelike.
An attempt to give audiences "feel" as well as vision and sound, it worked by electrically charging seats to stimulate panic. Premiered for The Tingler (1959) and never repeated. Invented by William Castle, known, not without cause, as the King of Ballyhoo. He once offered patrons free life insurance lest they died of fright. No one did.
Process unveiled in Scent of Mystery (1960) with the slogan: "First they moved! Then they talked! Now they smell!" Beside each seat were vials of scent within rotating drums. At cue on soundtrack, smells (including the killer's pipe tobacco) were released. A puff of fresh air then wiped the odour slate clean, ready for the next niff. Despite a good cast (Denholm Elliott, Leo McKern, Diana Dors), it flopped.
Used violent bursts of high-decibel sound to make audiences "feel" the action. Used first in Earthquake (1974) and subsequently in two other films, it was dropped after audiences in adjoining screens complained they were being literally shaken by sound waves emanating from next door.
Term used to describe 3-D movies during a brief fad in the 1950s. Audiences had glasses with red and blue lenses with which to watch 1952's Bwana Devil, shot for £200,000. It made £10m and sparked a short-lived boom, the best of which was House of Wax.Reuse content