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Posted 5/26/09. Originally published in LF Examiner, May 2009.

Imax reacts to controversy over digital theaters

[Update: The headline of this page was changed on 5/27/09 to remove an incorrect reference to Imax changing its branding policy.] 

 

By James Hyder, Editor/Publisher

 

Imax Corporation CEO Richard Gelfond says the company will take steps to give customers more information about its multiplex theaters, after a controversy sparked by a comedian’s blog generated two weeks of sometimes harsh criticism of the company from the media and the public. Since the rollout of the MPX projection system began in 2004, Imax has insisted that “The IMAX Experience” is the same in all its theaters.


It all started on the evening of Monday, May 11, when actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, co-star of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, posted the following “tweet” to his 25,000 followers on Twitter: “WARNING: AMC theaters are running FAKE IMAX’s and charging $5 extra for a slightly bigger screen. Boycott AMC. Don’t let them fool you.”


A few hours later, Ansari posted a blog entry that blasted Imax and AMC Entertainment for the fact that the Burbank, CA, theater in which he had seen Star Trek had only a “slightly bigger than normal screen and NOT the usual standard huge 72 ft IMAX screen.”


Between sending the Twitter message and posting the blog, Ansari had found LF Examiner’s October 2008 editorial, “Is IMAX the next New Coke?” on our Web site, which became the source for much of what he later wrote. He said in the blog that “Some people at Regal and AMC both wanted to call these screens IMAX Digital so as to differentiate it somehow from the giant IMAX screens people are used to associating with the name IMAX. Apparently IMAX doesn’t see anything wrong with duping customers like this and insisted on simply keeping it as IMAX. Well, I have a better term. How about ‘BULLSHIT IMAX.’ Cause that’s what it is.” 


Less than 12 hours after Ansari’s original Twitter message, a fan in Tennessee had started a Web site called Liemax.com, which featured a Google Map with markers for “real” and “fake” IMAX theaters in the U.S. He solicited, and received, e-mails from hundreds of other people to form the basis for his judgments.


On Tuesday morning, Ansari’s rant, which urged a boycott of Imax, AMC, and Regal Entertainment Group, was quickly picked up and amplified by dozens of other bloggers and Web sites, including Ain’t it Cool News, Movieline, Deadline Hollywood Daily, and the Consumerist. Virtually all agreed with Ansari’s criticism of the smaller IMAX digital theaters.


SlashFilm.com, a popular movie blog, accused Imax of “watering down the name brand” with screens that “aren’t anywhere near the size of a traditional IMAX screen.” TechDirt.com added, “What’s really stunning is that IMAX would risk such massive damage to its brand with this stunt. It’s difficult to fathom how massively such a move could backfire on a company whose brand image is probably its most valuable asset.”


Tech site Gizmodo.com posted a detailed report on how Imax retrofits its digital systems into multiplexes. Although the story was largely positive about the system, writer Mark Wilson concluded, “To my eyes and my gut, it’s more IMAX Lite or Normal Theater Enhanced. Is a retrofitted theater worth your extra $5? For the movies most likely to make it to the screen (big budget action), I think so...though maybe not for a family of four.”


MainStreet.com got the first official comments from Imax, when Gelfond touted the performance of Star Trek on IMAX screens: “IMAX did 15% of Star Trek’s total domestic box office in the whole country on only 138 screens.” He also claimed that “The overwhelming majority of comments on [Ansari]’s blog this morning, more than 90% of them, are vehemently disagreeing with him. And consumers are confirming this with their continued purchases of tickets.” 


Ansari shot right back with, “WHAT A SURPRISE ANOTHER IMAX LIE. Who did those numbers? The same guy who measures your bullshit tiny IMAX screens??? Read the comments and you’ll find that’s not the case and its definitely not the case on Twitter responses either.” He closed the post by challenging Gelfond to a debate on television. 


(Although many comments chided Ansari for asking for his money back after seeing the entire film, of those who commented on the IMAX digital theaters, the vast majority were critical of Imax, not Ansari. Very few people wrote favorably about the IMAX digital experience.)


By Wednesday, May 13, the story had spread to mainstream media Web sites, with stories from The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times


Imax had previously scheduled an “Investor Day” for analysts in New York for that morning, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, Gelfond and other executives “worked hard Wednesday to repair the damage done” by Ansari’s charges and “spent the better part of the morning...trumpeting how the ‘Imax experience’ is more immersive than traditional cinema-going.”


Reuters reported that Imax has no re-branding plans because, Gelfond said, “IMAX is IMAX. Does American Airlines brand a [Boeing] 767 [flight] differently than a 727? We wouldn’t put our name on it unless it lived up to the ‘Wow!’ factor and to the IMAX brand.”


LF Examiner was able to observe the level of interest in this story directly, because Ansari’s original blog, and many of the subsequent reports, linked to the October editorial on our Web site. From an average of 8,000 hits per day, LFexaminer.com jumped to 500,000 on Tuesday, May 12, down to 200,000 on May 13, then peaked at 2.2 million on May 14, after the mainstream media picked up the story. Hits dropped to 1.5 million on May 15, then to roughly 100,000 per day over the weekend. During the next week, they fell further, to around 50,000 per day, still well above the pre-controversy average.

 
LFX asked AMC and Regal whether the controversy had led them to reconsider branding the digital theaters differently, and if they had any other comment about the issue. Regal did not return repeated calls. AMC’s spokesperson forwarded what appeared to be a form response outlining the characteristics of the IMAX digital installations.


Through his publicist, Ansari declined to speak with LFX. He said nothing more about the issue on his blog, or to any other media outlet after the second blog.


Nevertheless, the story continued circulating through the week, and in the following week, on Thursday, May 21, Wired.com posted a story that included an extended interview with Gelfond and comments by Imax’s vice president of corporate communications, Sarah Gormley, who insisted, “It’s not about a particular width and height of the screen. It’s about the geometry. Some people online are very stuck on: ‘72-foot wide — that’s the standard.’ It was never the standard.”


A day later, Variety had the story, and quoted Gelfond as saying, “We are going to do something [about the complaints]. We hear the people,” adding that he’s not sure what percentage of Imax customers are dissatisfied with the multiplex experience. 


Variety writer David S. Cohen closed his story with, “Maybe they can take a cue from Coca-Cola, and dub the old screens Imax Classic. That is, if anyone would buy New Imax.”


The break came the next day from Patrick Goldstein in his Los Angeles Times column — appropriately named “The Big Picture” — who had been invited by Gelfond to lunch at Imax’s Santa Monica offices. The CEO gave him the same assurances about “doing something” he had made to Cohen, but the next day Gelfond told Goldstein, “I want to be clear. We’re going to do something about disclosing information. Period. The market research survey is really just to help figure out what to do, not if we should do something. We are going to give people more information — it’s just a matter of how and where.”


Investors appeared to reward Gelfond for this decision. Imax share prices had fallen from $7.16 on May 11, before Ansari’s blog appeared, to $6.57 at the end of the first week. They hovered around $7.00 for most of the second week, but jumped up to $7.74 at the close on Friday, after Goldstein’s column appeared.

 

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