‘Apollo’ makes giant leap

Space thriller rockets to giant-screen

Helmer Ron Howard and topliner Tom Hanks said the Imax re-release of Universal/Imagine’s “Apollo 13” could rocket the 1995 space thriller to 30 years of renewed theatrical life.

U, Imagine and Imax execs confirmed Thursday an agreement to release “Apollo” and other library titles — as well as selected new pics — in the giant-screen format, using a new process that converts images from conventional 35mm (Daily Variety, March 19). Other studios, including DreamWorks, Warner Bros. and Paramount, are engaged in active talks for similar Imax relationships.

An 11-minute clip of four scenes from “Apollo” was shown to press assembled in an Imax auditorium that’s part of a large Loews Cineplex theater at Universal CityWalk. The process sharpens and brightens images dramatically from what was possible previously, when conventional images were simply blown up to release pics such as “Gladiator” and “The Matrix” on Imax screens.

Imax said its new proprietary process for converting live-action pics into actual Imax negatives is improved from one that’s been used by Disney to convert a few of its feature tooners to the giant-screen format. Execs said the process allows greater reduction of the imperfections, or visual “noise,” created by blowing up conventional images.

“Disney and (studio boss) Dick Cook are the fathers of this process,” Imax Filmed Entertainment prexy Greg Foster said. “But (our) algorithm allows for enhanced noise reduction.”

Long life

Howard and the others noted top Imax releases have tended to have decades-long theatrical lives. That could make “Apollo 13” a way to educate future generations about the history of the U.S. space program, they suggested.

Helmer added he’s always been intrigued by the Imax format but had never gotten around to filming in it, which requires the use of special, cumbersome production gear.

“When I saw a test, I realized I had already made an Imax movie,” Howard quipped. “I’m really exhilarated by what this promises.”

U distrib maven Nikki Rocco and others declined to specify what additional pics might be converted for Imax distribution. But Imax co-CEO Rich Gelfond acknowledged talks already have been held about the possible Imax release of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and another source said it’s possible upcoming U/Imagine release “Cat in the Hat” could unspool in the giant-screen format.

Studios interested

Meanwhile, other Hollywood studios are believed to be ready to jump into the Imax distribution biz.

“I’m certainly interested,” Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman said. “There’s nothing to announce yet, but (there) could be soon.”

Distrib topper Jim Tharp said DreamWorks recently saw a screen test of an even more ambitious Imax process. A “Shrek” clip was converted not only into Imax’s 15-perforation, 70mm specs but also into a 3-D quality resolution of the sort previously seen only in a handful of specialty Imax pics.

“I thought it looked terrific,” Tharp enthused. But the 3-D conversion process is considered prohibitively expensive at present, especially for live-actioners.

Of Imax’s newly unveiled 2-D conversion process, Tharp observed, “Everybody will consider doing something with them after they see it.”

“We think it’s an interesting idea, but it’s definitely something that’s project-specific,” said Rob Friedman, chief operating officer and vice chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group.

Studios are expected to bear $2 million-$3 million in costs for each pic converted through the process.

Nationwide, there are about 100 Imax installations, with a total 225 worldwide. Other L.A.-area Imax theaters include a newly opened venue at Westside multiplex the Bridge. Gotham locations include a big Imax auditorium that’s part of Loews Cineplex’s flagship Lincoln Center theater.

Boost to biz

The announcement of the conversion process is expected to help Imax boost biz. A lack of sufficiently compelling Imax films has been a major barrier to expansion of Imax theaters.

The Toronto-based company’s stock price also is expected to benefit. Imax shares were up 58¢, or 14%, to $4.60 on Thursday.

Meanwhile, for all its obvious benefits from distribbing Hollywood pics in Imax format, there could be some downside as well, Hanks noted.

“(Thesps) might want to pay more attention to facial blemishes,” the A-lister suggested. “You could have a pimple the size of a Volkswagen.”

Imagine co-topper Brian Grazer and Imax co-chief Brad Wechsler also participated in the press presentation. Imagine prexy Michael Rosenberg, who led project biz-development efforts for the film production company, also was on hand.

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