Big screen lure

Fad or future? China goes crazy for IMAX cinemas

Big screen lure

Soon to be seen on a very large screen: Zhang Jingchu

With less than 100 days to the start of the Shanghai Expo, the event’s promotional team is upping a gear. This week’s titbit for the local media? A televisual treat in Australia’s $77 million pavilion. The China Daily was keen to inform readers of the “secret machine” within, with the pavilion’s publicist promising “a spectacular audio-visual experience featuring stunning images of Australia, all filmed in a format never seen before.”

“Will it be better than watching Avatar at the IMAX?” wondered the newspaper.

Whether the Aussies are really about to revolutionise global cinema screens remains to be seen. But it is perhaps no coincidence that the IMAX format also debuted at an Expo – in Osaka in 1970. And four decades later, the Canadian-designed technology is now enjoying a surge in popularity. Nowhere more so than in China, where production of the country’s first IMAX movie is due to begin. There are also plans to build a number of new IMAX cinemas.

The Economic Oberver gives a flavour of the craze. One of its reporters is trying to get into an IMAX showing at the Chinese Film Museum. It’s 5am on a snowy mid-January morning and temperatures are 10 degrees below. But there is a crowd of 2,000 with him, some jostling, some in tears. Three quarters will go home disappointed, as there are only 500 tickets on offer.

“I never expected it would be like this,” the cinema’s boss tells the Observer. “We started showing IMAX films in 2005. There wasn’t the same bustle back then. Now we put on 32 shows a week. That’s our limit – the machine needs to be rested…”

Beijing has three IMAX cinemas, and the country as a whole has just 22 – with 11 in museums, and 11 at commercial ventures. Thanks to their giant-sized screens and enhanced resolution, they have become the must-go places to watch the latest blockbusters.

The trend really started last year when Transformers 2 was shown in the IMAX format, and it became evident that young white collar workers were happy to shell out Rmb200 ($29.2) to see it at an IMAX theatre – four times as much as they’d pay to watch the same film on one of the country’s 4,723 ordinary screens. In the case of Avatar, the demand for tickets was so insistent that scalpers were able to sell IMAX seats for up to Rmb800 each.

The Economic Observer agrees that Avatar has been a turning point for IMAX. Far more Chinese now understand what IMAX is: “Through the proliferation of media reports, word of mouth and the internet, many people became fans of this giant screen format. Whether Avatar benefited IMAX, or IMAX benefited Avatar hardly matters. For both it has become a win-win situation.”

According to Canada’s IMAX Corporation, 20 more IMAX cinemas will be built in China over the next three years to cope with demand.

There are two things constraining IMAX’s potential growth. The first is the sheer size of the screens – normally at least 22 metres by 16 metres. That puts off some real estate developers from integrating them into their malls. The second is the expense. Beijing Business Today estimates an IMAX theatre costs five or six times as much as a normal cinema to build and operate. It costs $2 million just to buy the IMAX projection equipment, for example.

One of China’s most dynamic film studios is a believer in IMAX potential. Huayi Brothers (see WiC34) will release the first Chinese-made MAX film this summer. The Tangshan Earthquake is directed by Feng Xiaogang (see WiC11) and stars Zhang Jing Chu (pictured) as well as Feng’s wife, Xu Fan.

Unlike 2012 this is a disaster movie based on a genuinely catastrophic event. The Tangshan Earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people in 1976 (the highest number of fatalities for a 20th century earthquake). But, because it took place behind the closed doors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, few in the West know much about it. Mao’s government even refused aid from the United Nations in the aftermath.

Feng’s movie may lead to greater international awareness of the mega-quake. But the film studio is counting on a big domestic audience. Huayi Brothers expects the film to earn Rmb500 million at the box office, with Rmb35 million of that coming from IMAX screens.

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