Interstellar to be the Last 70mm Film IMAX Release?

Interstellar IMAX

In 2008 The Dark Knight made history as the first major Hollywood motion picture to include sequences shot with IMAX cameras. It stunned audiences with the deep clarity and immersive qualities of 70mm IMAX projection. In that same year however, IMAX started rolling out their new digital theater systems to large chain chains like AMC and Regal. In the years since, the amount of IMAX theaters and releases have tripled in size — the vast majority being digital theaters and releases. Next year IMAX plans to roll out its groundbreaking dual 4K laser projection systems to their remaining 70mm and digital 2K theaters alike. With a release set for late 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar seems likely be the last Hollywood film to receive a 70mm IMAX print and release. And now, according to the site Cines Argentinos, that appears to be the case.

From what I can gather between Google Translate and my own poor translation, IMAX President Greg Foster told Cines Argentinos last month at Cinemacon that at the time of its release, Interstellar will have less than a dozen 70mm IMAX screens to be released on. That’s already about 1/10th the amount of screens that The Dark Knight Rises was released on just last year. The site also claims that as it currently stands less than 5% of all IMAX theaters worldwide are 70mm. In late 2014, that number will be less than 2%.

IMAX Sizes

I write this as I prepare to see Star Trek Into Darkness later this evening at one of the best 70mm IMAX theaters in the country: Pointe Orlando. Director JJ Abrams shot select sequences of that film on 70mm IMAX, something that in almost all certainty wouldn’t have happened if Christopher Nolan never did the same for The Dark Knight 5 years prior. So it saddens me to think that this type of experience for Hollywood motion pictures, something still so new, may already be on the way out.

As a massive IMAX fan, I’ve spent copious amounts of time reading any reports I can get my hands on about IMAX’s new 4K laser system. And on the positive side, claims appear to be that it creates higher contrast, better brightness, and has a wider range of color. There have even been test screenings where half of the screen displayed the 70mm film projection and the other half a 4k projection, an overwhelming majority found the latter clearer and brighter. And because IMAX’s system is dual projected, it will have a perceived resolution well above 4K since it’s doubling the pixels on the screen. Alternatively, a pristine 70mm print, one without much MTF loss/deterioration, etc., will top out around perceived resolution of 8K — though it should be noted that the master and first gen prints would be higher. Cines Argentinos appears to confirm that new projection system would keep the classic 1.44:1 ratio of 70mm IMAX screens, preserving some of the heritage and traditions of IMAX which made it revolutionary in the first place.

IMAX Ratios

So we stand at a turning point in IMAX history. The massive screens and stunningly detailed prints are on a quick decline. The immersive experiences many of us grew up with at science centers and various theaters are transforming. There is a new era on the horizon for IMAX, and hopefully with the help of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan it’s just a different one rather than an inferior one. Though IMAX will still offer its film cameras to filmmakers, Interstellar stands to be a film that goes down in history as the last Hollywood feature to shoot and be released on 70mm IMAX. How many of you plan on seeing in this format if given the opportunity? I know I certainly will.

UPDATE: Our friends at IMAX informed us that select films will be released to the small percentage of theaters who won’t be converted to the new dual 4K laser systems after Interstellar. However, we still contend that Interstellar will likely be the last Hollywood film shot and presented on IMAX film. We’ve clarified our language above to reflect that conclusion, and using the information provided by IMAX President Greg Foster to Cines Argentinos, we think this to be the most likely scenario. We look forward to the new system and to the future of IMAX, while still showing reverence for the current system as it slowly sinks into its grave.

by Teddy Blass
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