This summer, IMAX is bigger -- and smaller -- than ever.
Bigger at the box office, with the latest "Harry Potter" IMAX 3-D installment set to displace the "Transformers" sequel July 29.
And smaller on the screen, because many multiplexes advertising "The IMAX Experience" -- including three of four Southern Nevada IMAX locations -- offer a different viewing experience, on a smaller screen, than their traditional IMAX counterparts.
Not that many audiences seem to mind.
These days, an IMAX release ranks as "an essential part of any major blockbuster," says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com. "People love that giant-screen experience and are willing to pay for it."
That's because moviegoers seeing IMAX releases pay a premium on top of the regular ticket price, with general admission tickets for IMAX features in the $15 range.
This summer, audiences have paid -- enthusiastically -- to see the "IMAX Experience" versions of "Star Trek," "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
Under normal circumstances, this week they'd be flocking to catch "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the fourth "Potter" feature with an IMAX release -- and the first in IMAX 3-D. But last fall, Warner Bros. decided to push the "Half-Blood Prince" to summer 2009 -- meaning a two-week delay in its IMAX arrival.
"It is what it is," says Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, acknowledging the "unusual circumstance with the 'Harry Potter' date being moved."
Because "people do see 'Harry Potter' more than once," he reasons, "maybe they'll see it a second time in IMAX."
And to Walt Borchers, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the online ticketing site MovieTickets.com, "My gut tells me it's going to blow through the roof when it opens in two weeks."
That would certainly follow the pattern of acceptance "IMAX Experience" releases have found so far this summer.
"The popularity has visibly increased since last summer," Borchers says, citing the fact that "more and more studios are releasing IMAX" -- and more and more multiplexes are adding IMAX screens.
Overall, there are 250 IMAX screens in the United States -- and more than 370 worldwide, he says.
And the percentage of advance ticket-buyers opting for IMAX releases also has increased this summer, from 11 percent for last year's smash "The Dark Knight" (last year's biggest hit) to 27 percent, 21 percent and 23 percent for this year's one-two-three punch of "Star Trek," "Night at the Museum" and "Transformers," according to Borchers.
With so many summer releases, "it's gangbusters now," according to Brenden Theatres president Johnny Brenden, whose multiplex inside the Palms has Las Vegas' only true IMAX theater, showing 70 mm film on a screen six stories high. "When there's a picture in IMAX, it's total destination -- 100 percent."
But it wasn't always that way.
Brenden envisioned an IMAX auditorium when the theater first opened in November 2001, "but when I built here, there wasn't a lot of IMAX product," he says. "I had the vision it was going to come. And finally, it's arrived."
In part, that's because IMAX Corp. has forged deals with several large theater circuits -- including the nation's biggest, Regal Cinemas -- to bring "The IMAX Experience" to existing multiplexes.
Unlike Brenden's 70 mm IMAX setup, Regal's IMAX auditoriums -- located in its Aliante Station, Red Rock Resort and Sunset Station multiplexes -- feature side-by-side digital projectors and are designed for screens no more than 70 feet wide.
Sunset Station's IMAX auditorium, which seats 291, has a 24-by-48-foot screen, according to the online LF Examiner, which bills itself as "the independent journal of the large-format motion picture industry." The Palms' IMAX theater, by contrast, has a 46-by-60-foot screen and seats 200. (Regal declined to provide specific screen-size information regarding its IMAX-equipped auditoriums.)
Overall, there's about a 50-50 split between digital and 70 mm projection systems, Foster says.
"A year ago, digital theaters didn't exist for IMAX," he notes, adding that there now are more than a hundred digital IMAX locations. "It's been incredibly successful."
In part, that's because an IMAX digital hard drive is considerably smaller than a projector -- and a digital version of an IMAX release is considerably cheaper than a "very bulky, very expensive" 70 mm IMAX film print, Foster says.
"Instead of a $5 million IMAX auditorium," multiplexes can retrofit existing auditoriums for IMAX presentations at a much lower cost, he says.
"We insist that every IMAX screen be the largest in that complex," Foster adds, noting that revamped multiplex theaters still feature "IMAX equipment and IMAX technology."
It's just not the IMAX technology some audiences associate with the storied IMAX name.
Las Vegan Brian Wenzloff -- citing the now-closed Luxor IMAX theater and domed Caesars Palace Omnimax -- recalls their giant, multistory screens and "top-of-the-line sound systems," he says. "That's how I imagined IMAX."
But when he went to Regal's Aliante and Red Rock IMAX theaters, he saw screens slightly larger than a regular screen, but the sound and picture quality didn't live up to established IMAX standards, he says.
"I feel, as a consumer, they ripped me off," Wenzloff says. "Real IMAX is 70 mm, and it's one projector, not two. You can see the difference in the picture."
And at www.liemax.com, a Web site devoted to delineating between traditional 70 mm IMAX and the newer digital version, one local posted an e-mail complaint that she "paid to see 'Star Trek' and the screen was the same size as the regular movies. Where was the superlarge screen I was used to? I felt totally ripped off, especially since this was a 10 a.m. showing and they didn't even offer a matinee discount price!"
Foster acknowledges that IMAX multiplex auditoriums might not live up to previous massive standards, but "it certainly is in an IMAX theater," he maintains. "Anyone suggesting that it's not in an IMAX theater" is mistaken.
Overall, "moviegoers have embraced the addition of the IMAX Experience to our theaters," according to Dick Westerling, Regal's senior vice president of marketing and advertising. "Our IMAX movies have delivered significant incremental attendance when compared to traditional presentations of the same films."
In addition, "Audience research conducted at the new IMAX digital theaters showed that 91 percent of the IMAX moviegoers want to see future films in IMAX," Westerling says.
And they'll undoubtedly keep seeing them, Borchers suggests. "As technology grows more sophisticated," he points out, studios have "got to keep doing things that you can't replicate at the house."
Contact movie critic Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.