The IMAX experience: More than a name

IMAXLast week, IMAX generated a lot of buzz among the tech blogs. It wasn't because of the release of Star Trek on the very-big screen, but because of an argument about what constitutes "IMAX." Comedian Aziz Ansari (you may have seen him on Parks & Recreation or Scrubs) rose a bit of a commotion (and a bit of swearing) about the distinction of IMAX screen sizes. He noted that many screens that claim to be IMAX are, well, not.

The problem comes from IMAX's new Digital IMAX screens, which frankly lack the "wow" factor of regular IMAX. "Standard" IMAX screens are huge, generally over 70 feet wide and 50 feet high. Digital IMAX screens are significantly smaller, at 58 feet wide and 28 feet high. Digital IMAX screens are big, but are utterly dwarfed by regular IMAX screens that offer almost triple the square footage of screen space.

Manhattan has two commercial IMAX theaters, the Loews Lincoln Center at 68th and Broadway, and the AMC Empire 25 at 42nd and 8th. The Loews theater has a standard IMAX screen, while the AMC Empire has a newer, digital IMAX screen. I've been to both theaters, and the difference is clear.

The AMC Empire's screen is pretty big. The Loews screen is huge. It's the difference between "Oh, cool, a big screen. This should be a fun movie," and "Wow, I think I need to sit near the back so I can see everything." One of IMAX's big claims is that it offers extraordinary immersion in the theater-going experience. Standard IMAX certainly offers that, because it's pretty darn hard to see anything but the massive screen towering before you. Digital IMAX, to be blunt, just looks like a very big screen.

Unfortunately, theaters don't advertise whether they use standard or Digital IMAX screens. If the marquis says "IMAX," you can't be certain until you actually get into the theater. Fortunately, some clever chaps have put together the (dubiously-named) "IMAX or LIEMAX?" Google Maps hack. Green theaters have full-size IMAX screens, and red theaters have smaller Digital IMAX screens. It's something to consider when you're looking for an IMAX theater, or are considering paying a bit extra for IMAX tickets.

Will Greenwald