Large-format family flicks getting even bigger

Remember the old expression 'Bigger is better?' That's certainly the case for large-format films, which are moving beyond their traditional museum and science center roots to challenge Hollywood on its own playing field as new-giant screen venues and Imax theaters expand...
June 1, 2001

Remember the old expression ‘Bigger is better?’ That’s certainly the case for large-format films, which are moving beyond their traditional museum and science center roots to challenge Hollywood on its own playing field as new-giant screen venues and Imax theaters expand their presence in commercial megaplex locations internationally.

The novelty of the huge (70mm film) screen size and the rare chance to see gigantic 3-D movie images have helped grow the large-screen business, which now boasts more than 220 theaters in 26 countries. The fact that this success is based on family-centric entertainment makes the large film formats even more intriguing.

Walt Disney Pictures took a leap of faith last year with Fantasia 2000: The Imax Experience, premiering the film in an exclusive large-screen window before its traditional 35mm run. Domestic box office grosses of over US$50 million in just 54 theaters convinced the studio to expand its Imax association. Now Disney is setting up a special Imax development unit and has announced five future productions planned for large-format debut, including the rerelease of Beauty and the Beast (with an additional song sequence), an ESPN Extreme Sports feature, a sequel to The Black Stallion and a presentation of the Broadway show Bring in `Da Noise, Bring in `Da Funk.

The Disney arrangement is the first of many with family film players, says Mary Pat Ryan, Imax’s executive VP of worldwide marketing. And though a deal to show DreamWorks’ animated film Shrek recently went bust, many studios are still hot for the big big screen.

The reason? Grosses for large-format movies keep growing. Other than Disney’s Fantasia 2000, the biggest hits are still the real-life adventures and documentaries. Everest (1998) remains the all-time champ, grossing over US$76 million in its original domestic release, followed by Mysteries of Egypt (US$40 million) and T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (US$36 million). However, more theaters have created a demand for more diverse programming, and that’s where family-skewing fiction offerings come in.

On the live-action front, Imax is adapting Goosebumps author R.L. Stine’s book The Beast, and has Die Hard screenwriter Steven De Sousa’s original take on The Return of Dr. Jekyll and Stephen King’s The Sun Dog in active development.

CGI and 2-D animation have also thrived in terms of large-screen demand. Mainframe Entertainment (Reboot, Beast Machines) is producing a three-dimensional Gulliver’s Travels for Imax release next year. In fact, the film is the first in a four-picture joint venture between Imax and Mainframe, a deal that includes development of traditional 35mm features as Imax is looking to flex its production muscle in other film categories than large-format.

Mainframe president and Gulliver producer Ian Pearson is excited about his first large-format production. ‘The format works well for something like Gulliver where you have massive character size changes,’ he says. ‘We are doing shots where Gulliver leans out into the audience so they can become a Lilliputian and see Gulliver as a giant.’

Budgeted at US$14 million, Gulliver comes in at the higher end of the typical production cost range for an Imax film, which is between US$5 million and US$20 million. The pic is slated for theatrical release in Q4 2002.

Other original animated films headed for the giant screen include Gahan Wilson’s Eddy Deco, about a P.I. who takes on a case involving a beautiful alien princess, and CGI retellings of Noah’s Ark and Rumplestiltskin.

New York’s Big Ideas Entertainment and Sonoma, California-based Hellikon are currently producing an US$8-million live-action/animated combo called The Adventures of Hawking and Crick, an entertainment and educational adventure about two comic strip explorers investigating the real world.

Although Big Ideas and Hellikon are still nailing down a distributor for the film, Hawking and Crick is designed to be more entertainment-driven than many of its predecessors in order to capitalize on large format’s expanded reach in multiplexes. ‘Hawking and Crick successfully combines what the institutional theaters need to fulfill their mission, but is also a lot more mainstream with a real narrative,’ notes executive producer Christina Schmidlin.

Featuring marquee star power is another way that large-format films are seeking to attract more mainstream audiences. Although big-name talent is starting to come around to the genre, producing for large-format venues has inherent difficulties that have traditionally kept well-known producers and stars away. ‘It is extremely difficult to make narrative dramas for this screen ratio,’ say Chris Raina, president of the Large Format Cinema Association, a trade organization that represents the industry. ‘You can’t use the normal languages of narrative filmmaking, whether it’s cinematography, shot composition, editorial style, extreme close-ups, two-shots, over the shoulder shots-they all have to be compromised. The aspect ratio becomes an impediment to telling a story.’

Schmidlin agrees. ‘You have to be careful how you frame your shot and the way you pace your animation. Everything is so gigantic on the screen that it can overwhelm the audience.’

The LFCA is trying to convince filmmakers and theater operators to ‘letterbox’ the Imax image, retaining the larger width and making it more conducive to traditional cinematic storytelling. ‘Once you remove that impediment, you have the highest resolution film and theater systems that have been created. And you are able to tell the kind of super-dramas that tend to attract the James Camerons and Steven Spielbergs. I think that’s where the future is.’

Hellikon’s Schmidlin is very enthused about the future of large format. ‘It’s an incredible medium for digital artists because the film community behind large format is very open-minded. You very rarely get to collaborate with a director in 35mm. In 70mm, filmmakers are a lot more open to working together.’

‘The reason we like Imax so much is that the films stay out there for a reasonable period of time to promote a franchise,’ says Mainframe’s Pearson. This longer theatrical window will certainly come in handy when Mainframe gets rolling on its ambitious Gulliver ancillary plans, the script for which calls for a TV series and direct-to-video offering.

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