Rising profits met with customer backlash

Imax’s slogan used to be “Think big,” but now some of its customers complain they’re being told to read the fine print.

The largescreen cinema exhib, which is usually busy reporting increasingly higher percentages of theatrical gross coming from Imax screens, finds itself doing damage control following a rare moviegoers’ revolt.

In the midst of an expansion that has made Imax an important premium venue — in the first two weeks of “Star Trek,” it claimed more than $22 million in gross on less than 2% of screens — the company that built its reputation as the ultimate way to see a movie is being accused of failing to deliver on its own promises.

The Toronto-based company was called out first by no less than Roger Ebert and then by bloggers for compromising quality in its expansion. Actor-comedian Aziz Ansari ranted about the topic; LF Examiner, an online trade publication for the large-format exhibition industry, accused Imax flat-out of lying. A website, Liemax.com, has sprung up to identify which screens are “real Imax” and which are “fake Imax.”

Suddenly the company is having to justify the $5 premium on Imax tickets to customers who see the new smaller screens and say, “That’s not Imax.”

That has created a PR headache for Imax execs, who were caught offguard by the issue. Imax CEO Rich Gelfond says their advance market research said only 2% of customers felt the new Imax screens weren’t a comparable experience to the old.

“To some degree this is a product of our success,” Gelfond tells Variety, “because as we attract more customers that other 2% is more and more people.

“We are going to do something (about the complaints). We hear the people.”

But as yet he isn’t sure what. He says they’re not yet sure what portion of their customers are actually unhappy. They’re planning a further customer survey and will decide what to do after they see the results.

In the meantime, the issue isn’t likely to go away on its own.

Imax plans to expand to 400 U.S. screens by 2010, mostly by moving into preexisting multiplexes. But unlike the giant screens seen in museums and specially built commercial venues such as Universal Citywalk, the newer installations use a 1.9:1 aspect ratio instead of the 1.43:1 aspect ratio of the old Imax screens and a pair of 2K digital projectors instead of a super-high-resolution 15/70 film print, which brings the cost of Imax within reach of many more theaters.

The dispute largely comes down to different definitions of Imax. The company defines its experience with theater geometry, picture brightness, sound quality and other technical arcana, which together are an upgrade over normal theaters. The unhappy fans want large-format film projected on very tall screens — they’re still thinking big.

The Australian Imax licensee, which operates only giant screens, has complained that the company was advertising the new multiplex screens also with the Imax name, and now worries about a threatened customer boycott.

“Why are they selling it as a giant screen when it’s not?” asked Mark Bretherton, CEO of Imax Sydney.

Don’t look for Imax to back down on its expansion, though — it’s too important to the future of the company. If limited to the 75-foot-tall special venue screens of the past, they argue, they’d be back in the “bears, whales and seals” pic business, where the company began.

Maybe they can take a cue from Coca-Cola, and dub the old screens Imax Classic. That is, if anyone would buy New Imax.

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