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Are movies getting better? Or just bigger?

Giant-screen theaters popping up all over the US aim to thrill rather than educate moviegoers.

By Matthew S. RobinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2002



For Carrie Smith, the experience could not have been any closer to that of landing on board the International Space Station itself. As globules of water and food appeared to hover in the air around her, she learned how astronauts live in a zero-G space environment.

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"The visuals and sound are so real, I felt as if I was there," exclaims Ms. Smith, of Belmont, Mass., part of the earthbound audience at a showing of "Space Station," a 3-D IMAX film narrated by Tom Cruise that depicts life on the station. Its premiere at 24 giant-screen theaters nationwide last weekend was the widest release in IMAX history.

The film's debut is also the latest effortto meet the growing demand for super-sized movie entertainment.

Whether taking viewers on journeys through space or underwater, giant IMAX screens have long been the property of museums. But changes are beginning to bring the large-format theater experience to wider audiences.

Mainstream Hollywood films meant to entertain, not educate, are being altered to fit the IMAX format. And super-sized screens – some as much as eight stories high – are popping up in some unlikely places. New venues such as theme parks, malls, and even a Natick, Mass., furniture store are changing the image of big- screen viewing.

"We discovered that the public's appetite was such that [IMAX screens] could succeed outside the institutional setting, so we began to change the product to fit both markets," says Richard Gelfond, cochairman of Mississauga, Ontario-based IMAX Inc.

"The hottest thing going on right now is reformatting," says James Hyder, editor and publisher of "LF Examiner," a large-format-theater trade publication. Showing standard 35-mm prints on a jumbo screen can cause distortions, but today's reformatting technique "will make it closer to IMAX standards."

The 1995 Hollywood hit "Apollo 13," for instance, is having its negatives reformatted to fit the giant screens and will be rereleased in IMAX format this summer. Director Ron Howard's company, Imagine, is preparing to shoot a live-action version of theDr. Seuss story "Cat in the Hat" and will also make IMAX-size prints of that movie. And Disney, which released "Fantasia 2000" in IMAX, has reformatted "Beauty and the Beast" for the big screen. It's also working on new projects for IMAX, including a long-awaited sequel to "The Black Stallion," due out in the fall of 2003.

Using its specially designed six-channel sound technology and super-large film format (10 times larger than standard 35mm film), IMAX movies can take viewers on hyper-realistic vivid journeys through places most would not otherwise see – from the world's tallest peaks to outer space. And some IMAX films add 3-D, where images seem to float right in front of viewers' eyes, for extra realism. Of the 180 IMAX films produced so far, 20 have been made in 3-D format. (They also require special projectors.)

"When people see an IMAX film, there is a huge 'wow' factor," Mr. Gelfond says. "It's not just bigger. It's qualitatively better."

"The size of the screen and the surround sound is an experience that blows your normal theater away," agrees viewer Kenneth Hannan Jr. of Andover, Mass.

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