Are movies getting better? Or just bigger?

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

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.

"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.

The escapist appeal explains why, in the next few years, IMAX plans to build or has started construction on 60 theaters. There are currently 225 IMAX theaters in more than 30 countries.

That "immersive" allure is also why more commercial big-screen theaters are being built. Only half of the current theaters are in institutional venues such as museums. In America, 47 of the 110 theaters can be found in tourist areas such as Universal Studios Florida and the Grand Canyon. Tese venues generally offer specially produced films tailored to the venue.

Even Jordan's Furniture plans to open an eight-story 3-D IMAX theater this spring at its Natick, Mass., store.

"We want to create an entire experience for our customers," says spokeswoman Heather Copelas.

IMAX was relegated to science museums and other educational institutions for many years after its debut in 1970 in Osaka, Japan, at an event similar to a world's fair. "North of Superior" was the first feature-length IMAX film shown in a big theater, in Toronto in 1971.

One of its biggest hits, which put IMAX in the spotlight, was "Everest," a 1998 documentary about climbers trying to scale the world's highest peak. Though the filming risks were great, the results were impressive.

"The IMAX movie allowed me to be there personally partaking in the travails of the other hikers and Sherpas," says Art Newman of Sharon, Mass., who saw "Everest" after reading a book about climbing Everest, "Into Thin Air." The film seemed so real to him that "I was aware of my need to be aware of my breathing and conserve my oxygen until I left the theater."

Though "Everest" and an IMAX space trilogy ("Dream is Alive," 1985, "Blue Planet," 1990, and "Destiny in Space," 1994) have proved successful, only a few large-format films have taken in anywhere near the box-office totals that feature films enjoy on a regular basis. The space trilogy, for instance, has made $250 million since it was released in 1985 and has drawn 70 million people worldwide.

Also, while there is lots of excitement about IMAX's future, the actual product has not yet caught up to its potential. Most IMAX films are still educationally oriented. Furthermore, because the films are so expensive to show, it is a major risk for operators. (Projecting systems cost $2.7 million to build and install).

But with a record-setting 70 million people having walked into IMAX theaters last year alone, hopes are high that the format will draw even bigger crowds.

More large-format theaters will benefit both the public and existing IMAX theaters, says one operator. "As opposed to competing, we are growing the market," says Derek Threinen, director of the new Simons IMAX Theater at The New England Aquarium. Boston's science museum also has a super-size screen. "We want to work together," he says.

"The IMAX idea is that the more theaters there are, the more people will think to go," says Sherrie Rivers, IMAX director at Boston's Museum of Science.

Many viewers say IMAX films stick in their memories. "I was completely overwhelmed," says Heath Weisberg, a New Yorker, about his first IMAX experience, a film on humpback whales. "The sound system and the blue-green ocean on the screen completely drew me in."

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