When I was a kid, hitting the theater for a summer blockbuster was a big family event. My dad loved going to the movies and he made a “thing” of it — I still remember standing in line for about two hours to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. We’d go to the Cinerama Dome with its massive curved 86-foot screen, or another behemoth of its day, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then we’d go out for dinner and ice cream. But just as ticket and concessions prices have gone up, consumer technology has also improved, allowing more people to afford relatively large screen TVs for home use and sapping ticket sales in the process. To counter the downturn, the film industry has worked hard to come up with innovations that might get more people in those stadium seats, trying everything from IMAX screens to dine-in theaters, recliners, rumble seats, and, of course, then there’s 3D. RealD 3D, IMAX Experience, Cinemark XD, D-Box seats — they’re all battling for your box office and concession dollars, but are these innovations really worth the extra dough?
As much as tickets and food cost these days, it really is all about the overall experience. I personally take a holistic approach to my moviegoing and consider the soundscape as important as the imagery, but for most people, a poorly projected screening is a dealbreaker. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for seeing those summer blockbusters. In fact, there might be too many options. Do you hit the regular showing, or see it in 3D? And will you be watching in standard RealD 3D, IMAX 3D, AMC Prime or Cinemark XD?
Let’s backtrack a bit here and put those questions aside for a moment. If you’re going to a movie shot in true IMAX — that means it was shot, at least in part, using IMAX cameras, on 70mm film, and is being projected on a full-size IMAX screen (97 feet wide by 76 feet high) — pay the extra cost if you have the money to spend. IMAX film is a large format with nearly unmatched clarity and quality of images, boasting even greater detail than 4K. Unfortunately, due to the size of the cameras, cost, and difficulty of post-production when compared to digital formats, 70mm/15p filmed IMAX production is rare, and so are screens around the country capable of projecting it. Most Hollywood films using IMAX cameras, such as Batman v. Superman, have only been shot partially in 70mm, often using 35mm film or a super high-end digital camera like the Red Epic. The last big-budget movies that included a significant portion of IMAX 70mm footage, approximately 70 minutes of it, was Interstellar. (Yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens also includes IMAX footage, but only during the five-minute Millennium Falcon chase scene.)
At one point, 3D was all about making it look like things were flying out of the screen — and the overall effect felt like filmmakers were saying, “We need to make sure the audience knows we’re using 3D, so let’s throw as many things in their faces as possible.” Since those unsubtle days, 3D has come a long way. But between RealD 3D, IMAX 3D, AMC Prime, and Cinemark XD, how do you choose? Is it really worth it to pay extra for IMAX 3D or Cinemark XD over any other 3D or even the standard 2D format? I’d say, “Yes. Sometimes.”
Because of the way 3D is projected, it can actually be darker and not as crisp as the newer IMAX, which uses new laser projectors and Cinemark XD, which uses newer 4k DLP projectors — two of them per screen to be exact — as opposed to the older, single-projector setup. Last year Cinemark invited me to a tech preview to examine the newer XD technology. We watched the Jurassic World trailers and took a tour of their dual Barco DP4K-32B projectors — all of which was impressive. The images from the projectors were brighter (they actually hold a Guinness Book World Record for being the brightest), sharper, and presented better separation of the foreground and background in the 3D imagery. The leveled-up luminance has a powerful impact on imagery, particularly on dark scenes, and those with wide ranges of dark to light on screen at the same time. The difference was quite clear, and there’s actually a scientific reason for that — which has to do with heat, mirrors, and how light is projected through the prisms used in older digital projectors. Long story short, newer projectors are better at cooling and processing light!
There’s another angle to look at when viewing your movies on the larger screens, and that’s the difference between Cinemark XD, a true IMAX theater, and an “IMAX Experience” theater, which IMAX won’t officially comment on. The standard IMAX screen measures 72 feet wide by 53 feet high, going all the way up to 117 feet by 97 feet, and you’re paying for all of that extra screen real estate with your $15 ticket. The IMAX Experience screens will cost you the same amount of money, but don’t have a standard size, often playing on screens only slightly larger than your average movie screen — around 58 feet wide and 28 feet high. Where does the Cinemark XD large format experience fit in? Their wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling screens come in at 70 feet high. For me, the best money spent on 3D today is going to be Cinemark XD for its screen size and brightness, though IMAX 3D with Laser is a close second.
Once you’ve chosen to attend a 3D screening, how do you decide which films are worth seeing in that format? I tend to make my decision based on the scale of the experience. For a movie like The Jungle Book or The Hobbit, in which the environments play as big a role as the actual characters themselves, I’ll pay extra. The studio is spending big bucks to whisk you away to somewhere you’ve never been — they want to immerse you in the fantastical. A wonderful comedy like Barbershop: The Next Cut, on the other hand? Not so much. For a big blockbuster like Captain America: Civil War, I’ll pay extra because the filmmakers used newer technologies to better capture the large scope and scale of superhuman characters duking it out during a 15-minute fight scene, and it really pays off.
Money Monster, Central Intelligence, The Conjuring 2? Probably not worth the extra investment. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Warcraft, Star Wars: Rogue One, Finding Dory? Yes, and regarding the latter, since it’s an animated film, I’d probably be satisfied with single projected RealD 3D — those tend to be brighter than movies with real, human flesh tones and lighting in them.
This next one is pure gimmick, in my opinion. Some theaters include D-Box seats, which actually pivot and move and rumble along with the action in the movie you’re watching, and they’re only worth the ticket upgrade in very, very specific circumstances. I saw Deadpool while sitting in these seats and by the end of the film I used my favorite feature, which is the ability to control how active they are, in order to completely turn mine off. I could see seats like these being a good complement to a movie like Red Tails, Rush, or even space dogfight scenes in a Star Wars flick, but other than that, they can be a distraction. For example, every time there were gunshots in Deadpool, the seats rumbled — and these were handgun rounds, mind you. Not rocket launchers or grenades. For 99 percent of the movies you’ll see, I say skip the rumble seats.Now, while good eats aren’t technology, they certainly can add to the moviegoing experience, and theaters are beginning to adopt technology as a part of the dine-in format, so it’s worth a mention. Select AMC locations now allow you to go online and order food to your seats before you even show up for your movie — and I have it on good authority that they’re testing an app which will allow you to order from your seat at the theater. Is it worth it to hit one of the AMC Dine-In Theaters, or the popular Alamo Drafthouse if there’s one in your area? Maybe not for every movie you see, but absolutely on occasion. My wife and I have used dine-in theaters for our date nights from time to time.
The main factor in determining whether the upcharge is worth it will be — you guessed it — the food. For example, in my area, the iPic theaters have better Yelp! reviews for their food selection and quality than the AMC Dine-In theater. If you have a choice of dine-in theaters in your area, hit Yelp! before you decide which one’s getting your extra cash. On average, you’re going to pay a few dollars more than an IMAX ticket for the ability to have food — which isn’t included in the cost of admission — brought to your seat. The other upside to most of the dine-ins is adult beverages. Yes, you get recliners (in most of them), good food, and alcohol. Add that to the movie you’ve been so excited to see, and you have the makings of a highly enjoyable night out. At worst, if the movie doesn’t live up to the hype, you may not mind as much once you’ve had a drink or two.
And there you have it! I hope we’re able to make your next trip down the Tomatometer translate to a better theater-going experience overall. I have a family of five, including myself, and I know how expensive it can be, so being picky about which movies I’m paying $15 a head for has become an art. Do you have other film and TV tech related topics you’d like to see us cover? Burning questions which need answering? Leave a suggestion in the comments below and we’ll try to get to it in a future column!
Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong