Is IMAX Destroying Its Brand?

Aziz Ansari is pissed at IMAX theatersThe last couple of years have been full of story’s about IMAX’s success. Ever since the theater chain, which was originally dedicated to documentaries filmed with clunky cameras, started showing “real” movies, its revenues have skyrocketed, and for good reason. People pay – and they do pay – a premium of up to $5 (more if you buy online) to go see the latest blockbuster on a massive screen with excellent sound and near-vertical seating.

But Aziz Ansari, one of the stars in the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” has unleashed a firestorm against the company for diluting the IMAX brand and robbing him of dollars that were unnecessarily spent. And I have to agree with him…

Last Thursday night, I went to Star Trek at the Pacific Science Center IMAX in Seattle. This is real IMAX. I waited in line and I got seated in front of a kickass, six-story-tall screen that went from floor to ceiling. The screen is huge, and the seating, which runs much steeper than the traditional movie theater, guarantees you won’t glancing around someone’s fat head to see everything. In other words, it’s a unique experience that provides great sound, crystal clear display and an overall different perspective than a typical theater does. Even though Star Trek was not filmed in IMAX format as were parts of The Dark Knight last year, it was still a cool, in-your-face experience.

Having grown up in Seattle, this is what I come to expect of IMAX. As far as I know, IMAX screens are big, the seating steep and the sound engulfing in every part of the country. At least they used to be.

On Sunday, I went to Star Trek for a second time, this time by visiting Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue, WA. Lincoln Square is an awesome theater with comfortable seats and large screens, but they had just upgraded by installing an IMAX theater. Awesome. So Lincoln Square tore out one of its theaters, installed vertical seating and a large screen, and now has the right to charge extra for that particular theater, right? Wrong!

To my disappointment, the screen was a little bigger – vertically at least – but the seating was just normal, old stadium-riser seating. I could clearly see IMAX projectors up in the booth, and the movie did look great… but it still felt like a normal movie for the most part. The IMAX experience was not to be found, but I did manage to spend a lot more money on my tickets.

From the sounds of it, Aziz went to an “IMAX” theater that was much smaller than the normal IMAX screen. If that’s the case, and from what I hear, it is, that really, really sucks. I felt a bit shafted, but not enough to ask for my money back. If I went into an alleged IMAX screen that ended up being a quarter of the size of a regular screen, I would be pissed. Either way, I’m not going to shell out money for marginally better picture and sound at Lincoln Square’s IMAX screen again.

So, all of this is very troubling. Sure, IMAX is making great profits right now (actually, the company itself is not profitable due to debt payments, but its revenue grew 43% in the first quarter of 2009 so it’s well on its way), but this expansion could destroy it in a long run. IMAX has always represented uber-quality and superior experience, but without distinguishing its fake IMAX screens from its real ones, it is going to dilute its brand strength quickly. It’s funny that Aziz brought this up, as the thought had been nagging at me all week; it wasn’t until he pointed it out and his rant made headlines that I realized how horrible of a strategy this was.

Regal, AMC, IMAX and other chains should think long and hard about how they want to position these new digital screens in the future. Call them IMAX Digital, or “with IMAX technology,” but for God’s sake, don’t fool moviegoers into spending their hard-earned cash by not distinguishing between the two.

By Erik Samdahl
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