On the largest movie screen in the Western Hemisphere, a horse almost as big as a whale pokes its nose into the audience. Dozens of children and adults wearing cordless headsets with liquid crystal lenses see the horse in three dimensions. The illusion is so real that hands reach out to touch the virtual nose.
Welcome to the SONY IMAX theater on Broadway, where the future of the entertainment world is changing before your eyes on a screen 80 feet high and 100 feet wide.
The awesome, high-definition 3-D technology at SONY IMAX turns the moviegoing experience into an event. Previous efforts to market 3-D films in the 1950s such as "House of Wax" failed to engage audiences. But since then, 3-D technology has become dazzling, and audiences want more special effects than ever before. And creating "events" is what drives the current entertainment packaging at venues called "urban entertainment destinations" or "location-based entertainment" in cities around the world.
Both conventional and 3-D movies at multiplex theaters located at theme parks, museums, city centers, or malls - such as one outside London called the "Magical World of Fantasy Island" and another in Ledyard, Conn., at the Foxwoods Resort Casino - offer customers a smorgasbord of entertainment possibilities at one location.
Add arcades and simulated 3-D rides, and a night out, or a day out, can be filled with cutting-edge amusement. The lone, American neighborhood movie house, or even a two-screen theater, is virtually gone. And home theaters are becoming so sophisticated that some multiplex commercial theaters offer little that is new.
"With IMAX you have total immersion," says James Steen, an entertainment consultant in Decatur, Ga. "The viewer is enveloped in the experience." And most people love it.
"Viewers say they want more and more special effects and adventure," says Mary Jane Dodge, director of IMAX programs at SONY theaters.
While special effects in summer hit movies like "Independence Day," "Twister," and "The Rock" are incorporated during production, at IMAX the special effects emerge via 3-D technology at the theater.
For Peter Archer, a college student who viewed "Across the Sea of Time" at the SONY IMAX theater in New York, full-length feature films in 3-D can't come soon enough. "Imagine seeing 'Independence Day' in IMAX," he says. "It would be incredible."
IMAX, with headquarters in Toronto, is already heading in that direction and wants to become fully mainstream. After some 25 years of producing more than 100 short, breathtaking documentary films shown in 125 huge, domed theaters in museums and city centers worldwide, the company is venturing into commercial films at commercial locations.
"Maybe the future of America is more like the Mall of America [in Bloomington, Minn.] than any other place," says Dan Stastny, a top executive at the Audubon Institute in New Orleans, La., an organization overseeing nine public facilities. "Everybody is trying to put as much as they can in one location," he says.
Near the Mall of America a "corridor of entertainment" is developing. Jim Seitz, a spokesman for an IMAX 3-D theater under construction at the entrance to the Minnesota Zoo near the mall, says, "We want to be part of that corridor. In the daytime, we will cater to the zoo audience with 3-D nature films," he says. "At night, we'll bring in people seeking mainstream entertainment."
IMAX has a joint venture with Capital Cities-ABC Inc. to develop commercial, mainstream films. In Niigata, Japan, IMAX and Sega Enterprises have opened an IMAX simulated 3-D, five-minute adventure ride (with seats that rock and roll) at a theme park.
Of the new locations being built by IMAX around the world at the rate of about one a month, most are commercial movie houses. Currently, 18 theaters are equipped to show 3-D films, and many older locations are upgrading their facilities.
In collaboration with SONY, IMAX produced the first big-screen, 3-D fictional film with a story line in late 1995. This film, "Wings of Courage," directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud about the first airmail flight across the Andes, stars Val Kilmer, Tom Hulce, and Elizabeth McGovern.
" 'Wings' is really awful," says Ken Turan, a movie critic with the Los Angeles Times. "They just didn't pay much attention to the script. To me, 3-D throws you out of the story rather than drawing you into it, so it will take some getting used to."
He and other critics say 3-D works best with documentary material. "The film 'Under the Sea' was really quite astonishing," Mr. Turan says. "It felt like I was underwater."
The second dramatic 3-D film, "Across the Sea of Time," is the story of a young immigrant boy in New York on a quest to find his family. Antique stereoscopic photos of New York are juxtaposed throughout the film with contemporary locations in the city.
Both films are showing at the SONY IMAX in New York to packed houses. They run about 50 minutes each. "The cost of the raw film stock runs roughly about $100,000 per finished minute for an IMAX film," says Tom Sanford, IMAX theater director at the New Orleans Aquarium of America. "A 90-minute film is extremely expensive."
IMAX stock film is also 10 times larger than 35-mm film and therefore maintains sharpness when projected on a huge screen, no matter what the subject. Because IMAX cameras are heavy and cumbersome and are criticized for the inability to provide intimate close-ups, will well-known movie directors avoid grappling with this challenging technology, no matter how dazzling the results?
Annaud, an Academy Award-winner in l981 for his film "Quest for Fire," predicts the IMAX 3-D product will become an accepted part of filmmaking.
"Who will be able to resist when they see this phenomenal quality of reproduction?" he says. "It's practically virtual reality."
The hallmark of past IMAX films was the opportunity they offered viewers to vicariously visit places out of reach to most people - outer space, the Galapagos Islands, and the Serengeti Plain in Africa, for example.
"IMAX puts out a quality product," Mr. Steen says. "They were the Discovery Channel of the large screen format and took us to exotic places. Competition for the large screen format is burgeoning now, and if IMAX remembers to continue taking people where they can't go, they will continue to be popular."