Why Hollywood Loves IMAX More Than 3-D

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The decline in movie theater attendance can’t be denied. The majority of people say they rarely or never go to the movies nowadays, and last year saw the fewest movie tickets sold since 1995. Yet one part of the business—the IMAX presentation—has shown enormous sales growth lately. And unlike 3-D viewings, which get lukewarm reactions among moviegoers, watching on a huge IMAX screen is an experience people are happy to pay a premium for. No annoying glasses either.

USA Today reports that IMAX ticket sales hit $55 million during the first six weeks of 2012, a 45% rise over the same period in the previous year. With can’t-miss blockbusters such as “The Hunger Games” and a rerelease of “Titanic” coming soon in IMAX, ticket sales could be up as much as 70% overall in early 2012.

This is despite the fact that a ticket to a movie in IMAX often costs $15 or more. Whereas paying a $5 premium for a film in 3-D is widely considered a rip-off—one that many moviegoers are choosing not to pay—IMAX seems more like a genuine upgrade, a plain-old better and more impressive experience.

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Reading into ticket sale trends, fans seem to review 3-D as more of a gimmick, and an annoying one at that, what with the need to wear annoying glasses that darken the screen and leave viewers with headaches. IMAX, on the other hand, literally supersizes a movie. At up to 60 feet tall, the size of the screens alone seem worth paying extra for, especially because this is not an experience anyone can come close to replicating at home. One expert weighed in with USA Today:

“There’s a consensus that with all the ads, all the gimmicks Hollywood pulls, IMAX is the real deal,” says Hollywood.com’s Paul Dergarabedian.

In 2011, 9 of the top 10 highest-grossing movies were shown in IMAX in some capacity. This year’s first legitimate hit, “The Lorax,” was released in IMAX, and more surefire blockbusters such as “The Hunger Games” and the new Batman movie will also be shown in the format.

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An IMAX presentation can also help salvage a stinker of a film. The most recent epic dud, “John Carter,” pulled in $30.2 during its opening on 3,749 screens, but an impressive $5 million (17% overall) on a mere 289 IMAX screens.

In a press event last summer, Steven Spielberg basically admitted that moviegoers shouldn’t have to pay extra for a movie shown in 3-D. But felt that IMAX was worth paying a premium for:

I am certainly hoping that 3D gets to a point where people do not notice it. Because once they stop noticing it, it just becomes another tool and helps tell a story. Then maybe they can make ticket prices comparable to a 2D movie and not charge such exorbitant prices just to gain entry into a 3D one, with the exception of IMAX – we are getting a premium experience in a premium environment.

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For now, though, that experience will be limited. While the number of IMAX screens is on the rise, with an all-time high 170 new theater systems installed last year, IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond told the Hollywood Reporter that the number of mainstream films released in IMAX will number less than two dozen annually:

What has worked out well for Imax has been a focus on around 20 U.S. releases a year. Pointing to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” which he said played well for an extended period of time, Gelfond said: “Let it breathe…I don’t want to make it too crowded.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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