NEW YORK — Sony Theatres’ relationship with the Toronto-headquartered Imax Corp. started off with a joint project befitting a partnership of two powerful brand names in technologically proficient entertainment hardware: They built a theater — the first Imax theater in North America to be inaugurated by a major exhibitor.
The Sony Imax Theatre, which opened in November 1994 on New York’s Upper West Side on Broadway in the Sony Theatres Lincoln Square multiplex, has come to be regarded as a symbol of the dazzling technology and commercial viability of the kind of large-screen format exhibition that once was associated with museums and theme parks.
“Back in the early ’90s, we wanted to look at ways to enhance the out-of-home film experience,” recalls Lawrence Ruisi, president of Sony Retail Entertainment, noting that studies of large-screen formats, interactive entertainment and motion simulators were all conducted. “We looked at all the names in large screen and decided that Imax was the best player.”
Plans for the theater complex were set in motion in 1991 by Ruisi, then executive VP of Sony Pictures, and former chairman Peter Guber. When current co-chairs Barrie and Jim Loeks joined Sony Theatres in 1992, the building was being conceived as a nine-screen movie theater with its box office on the street; no inner lobby or out-of-the-ordinary interiors were on the drawing board. The Loeks added the mural-adorned lobby and movie palace-style design to the structure.
“If you’re going to do it on Broadway, you’d better do it right,” Barrie Loeks says. “There are all kinds of Imax theaters of all sizes and I may be prejudiced, but I think this one is the grandest of them all. The Lincoln Square complex typically has the No. 1 gross in the country on major films, which makes it the premier theater location in the world. Having the Sony Imax there has helped make the theater work and enhanced the entire complex.”
Large-screen films that play the Sony Imax Theatre, with its 600 seats, mammoth 800-square-foot screen and Imax 3-D PSE (Personal Sound Environment) technology, carry a $9 ticket price, typically run 30-40 minutes and often attract tourists and large school groups during nontraditional moviegoing hours. On a Tuesday morning last month, for example, 1,100 school children began filling up the facility at 10 a.m. for two back-to-back screenings of “Across the Sea of Time,” a 3-D narrative-structured adventure-travelogue film about the New York City of today and yesterday.
Since, according to Loeks, “Imax doesn’t tend to be a latenight business,” traditional 35mm films like “Star Wars” have been projected on the bigscreen in weekend latenight slots. Indeed, the attendance for the single-screen Sony Imax theater “is about equivalent to what a 12-screen multiplex would do,” she says, adding that the theater also has hosted its share of corporate affairs and launch parties over the past two years.
Sony appears to be increasingly committed to large-format exhibition. The company recently completed an Imax theater in Tokyo and is planning one for its new Sony Europe headquarters in Berlin. Stateside, a Sony Imax 3-D theater is slated to open in San Francisco in the fall of 1998, with architect David Rockwell providing the theming and design finishing. Another is being considered for Boston.
“By building the theater we did in New York, we’ve really changed the way that the world looks at this format and proved that it can work in a commercial venue,” Loeks says, pointing out that the Sony Imax Theatre was the first 3-D theater in the U.S. and that there are now 13 across the country. “Sony has done a tremendous job of making Imax a part of commercial America.”