Imax home cinemas

The Imax has launched a “beyond awesome” home cinema, with immersive picture, nine-channel surround sound and screens that range from huge to colossal Jonathan Margolis sizes up the options

Life of Pi showing on an Imax Private Theatre
Life of Pi showing on an Imax Private Theatre | Image: TK Theatres and Imax Corporation

Afriend of mine in Yorkshire was once extremely – as in private jet, helicopter and rich list – wealthy. Then it all went a bit wrong. He lost everything, had to move from a manor house to a tiny rented flat and swap private flying for the bus. During that dour period, we met up in a café in Leeds. Ever one to see the sunny side, he said one of the things he was learning from the experience was that, although he’d had to replace his then top-of-the-range 84in TV with a 14in, if you sat close to it, which he now had to do as his living room was so small, the overall effect was much the same. 

I thought about my friend in Los Angeles the other day when I was invited by Imax, makers of the gigantic movie screens you find in the world’s top showcase cinemas, to see something they thought How To Spend It readers just might like. They have launched a home Imax cinema, priced $2.25m to $2.75m plus building work, normally a dedicated extension as the screens can be up to 80ft wide and 44ft tall. There’s also an entry-level Imax, the Palais, coming soon for smaller existing rooms, with a smaller, but still estimable screen – and priced from as low as $400,000. The first full-scale Imax Private Theatre (IPT) has already been installed in a new wing of a film star’s home in Beverly Hills; eight are on order, seven across the US, one in Delhi; and a chap having a yacht built in Europe is close to signing the deal.

What was making me think of my pal back in Leeds, as I sat gawping at the colossal, immersive picture and nine-channel surround sound at one of the Imax demo screens on an industrial park near Marina del Rey, was the question of what size of Imax screen it’s best to go for if you take the plunge. The price difference between a smaller IPT, with, say, a 20ft wide screen, and a huge one is typically $0.5m, which in these realms doesn’t seem that wide a gap. So would a buyer be selling himself a little short going for a small home Imax rather than a big one? Or is the effect much the same if you just sit closer to the smaller version?

The answer, I was to discover from the Imax hierarchy from Toronto, where the company is based, is that my Yorkshire mate’s theory actually does apply. “He’s right. The size issue is not that definitive at the end of the day,” said Larry O’Reilly, Imax president for worldwide sales. “What’s important from a technical perspective is not the size of the screen but the relationship between the screen and the seating deck, the theatre geometry and the acoustic treatment. It’s a field-of-view issue. Will the person going for the smaller screen be shortchanging himself? If those relationships are right, then no. He’ll be blown away.”

Scottish-born-and-educated Hugh Murray, Imax’s 3D expert and consultant and the go-to guy for Hollywood directors shooting in Imax, explained, however, that size, relative to the eye, if not in absolute terms, does remain the essence of Imax. “A big painting in a gallery that takes up a whole wall is a very, very different thing from a small painting you stand close to,” he said.

A lot of buyers are nonetheless determined to go for size pure and simple at all costs, O’Reilly said. “We had interest from a guy who wanted a massive screen with just two seats. He said, ‘I like to play video and watch movies at the same time. I might invite one other person.’ He is quite eccentric.” Yet that pioneering IPT in Beverly Hills, O’Reilly continued, is for 44 people and the screen is “only” 39ft by 29ft – 3ft longer than and twice the height of a London double-decker bus. Others in areas such as the southern Florida coast, where there are hurricane-building height restrictions, and in Manhattan condos, will be as “small” as 10ft tall by 18ft wide, yet provide the full Imax experience for between six and 20 people.

IPT is beyond awesome, I promise, whether in 3D, 2D or just showing standard Blu-rays, high-definition TV pictures, games or even your own GoPro footage from your cycle helmet or surfboard. Yet even some well-versed film people are sceptical that a home Imax could be as good as a massive public screen. So what exactly is Imax? And what do you get for your $2.25m upwards Imax Private Theatre, plus a (probably more expensive) giant home extension?

Imax originated at the Montreal World Expo in 1967. It developed by 1970 to be the successor to Cinerama as a way of making films seem to have depth and be more immersive. Like Cinerama, Imax uses a curved screen, but the screen is also very large and the audience is close to it so it extends beyond their peripheral vision. Imax works especially well in 3D, but not all Imax films are 3D, though even in 2D they still have a depth effect. A particular benefit of Imax 3D is for the millions of people who are, like me, stereoblind and cannot watch normal 3D films or 3D TV; in many of these cases, Imax 3D “works” for them because it uses a system called orthostereo, which seems to coax the brain of even stereoblind people to conjure up a form of depth vision.

Many films are shot with Imax’s own cameras – directors Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron are notable supporters of the format. Nasa, which has used Imax cameras for 30 years to make some extraordinary space documentaries, is also a big player. There are over 800 public Imax cinemas around the world, the biggest being in Darling Harbour, Sydney, with a screen that is 117ft by 97ft tall. The very latest Imax cinemas use twin laser-powered projectors, which boost brightness and contrast in extremely large cinemas, and the screen images they produce are, indeed, a sight to behold. The IPT uses twin 4K xenon-lit projectors, but for these “smaller” cinemas the lighting and contrast appear effectively the same as at a laser installation.

The IPT package for the home Imax buyer comes with design and onsite supervision, a nine-channel Imax surround-sound system and training to use the special tablet controller. Ease of use by the owner has been Imax’s main concern. The server supplied is preloaded with 200 Imax movies and documentaries, with a further 20 terabytes of space (expandable) for additional films, which can be on Blu-ray, DVD or, if you move in charmed Hollywood circles, on the one-film hard drives used by commercial cinemas. In North America, and coming to the rest of the world’s IPTs in the future, is an internet film portal, Prima, which delivers current, in-cinema films in above Blu-ray quality (or full Imax if the film is in Imax) at around $500 per screening. Your cinema is monitored at all times by Imax network operations centres in Toronto and Shanghai, which can remotely resolve over 90 per cent of problems – and despatch a repair team for bigger issues. IPT also offers options for custom seating (such as sofas or D-Box reactive seats that move with the action), screen curtains, tables for food and drinks, and custom lighting for extra mood and drama.

In a private Imax, furthermore, there are two major under-the-line advantages. You can control the sound level, which can be blastingly loud for many people (filmmakers often specify these levels for artistic effect). The ads in public Imax cinemas are often even louder but, of course, these are not an issue in a home Imax setup. Another advantage of a private Imax is that you can move around your own cinema and sit where the film looks best to you, which is hardly encouraged or possible at public screens, even though your physical position relative to the screen can greatly affect your viewing experience.

After spending probably upwards of £3m on a private Imax cinema, consumers will understandably expect it to be future‑proof for some while. Will your investment continue to be leading edge? David Keighley, one of Imax’s presidents at our Los Angeles meeting, has hopes that an upgrade in computing power will one day make the clunky plastic glasses needed to view 3D Imax unnecessary.

And, as he pointed out, there is an Imax laboratory full of young geniuses toiling away nearby at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in an effort to make film images and sound ever more lifelike. When you look at it in depth, then, having the Imax brand in your home does seem to be a lot more than the latest and most exclusive status symbol. You’d have to admit, though, as status symbols go, it’s not bad.

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