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The History of IMAX

by Julie Brown

It all began when a small group of Canadian experimental filmmakers came together to produce a multi-screen film installation at EXPO ‘67 in Montreal. The installation was part of a competition to create the first truly large-screen film experience. The filmmakers did it by syncing nine projectors together. It was a huge technological challenge. And as they pulled it off, the ambitious team that would one day start the company to be known as IMAX was faced with another question: wasn't there a better way?

The answer, of course, was yes – but there would be many challenges to overcome before getting there. Over the next three years, IMAX technology was born, and its epic camera, projector and domed screen system premiered at the Fuji Pavilion at EXPO '70 in Osaka, Japan.

IMAX’s initial introduction to the public was targeted at a fairly niche set of venues. Purpose-built theatres were designed and placed in museums, science centers and some iconic commercial destinations. The first permanent IMAX projection system was installed at Ontario Place's Cinesphere in Toronto in 1971, where it remains in operation – showing a film about the history of the city. Other locations would show films that matched the nature of the venue – a Grand Canyon exploration, a deep dive under the sea or even a trip into space. Never a stagnant company, IMAX soon expanded further, with the invention of new technology including the IMAX Dome and IMAX 3D.

IMAX went public in 1994, which was around the same time the company began to see the growth potential in Hollywood content. If IMAX could make documentaries of such extraordinary power, why couldn’t it do the same for live-action films? Dipping a toe in, the company built a few theatres in multiplexes across North America (including the first in New York City’s Lincoln Square), but the ambitious new business model soon ran into trouble. Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroitor, two of the IMAX founders, were still producing a majority of the films being shown on IMAX screens. They and the small handful of other IMAX producers could not make enough IMAX movies to fill all of the available slots in the multiplexes. Meanwhile, Hollywood wouldn’t make IMAX movies until more theatres were built. IMAX faced a classic "chicken and egg" problem.

To solve it, IMAX headed back to the lab and invented a revolutionary new technology called DMR – or Digital Re-mastering. This is the process of turning an already powerful Hollywood movie into a breathtaking IMAX blockbuster. It allowed IMAX to work with directors on dozens of ways to enhance a movie and to change the saturation, contrast, brightness and a score of other variables in virtually every frame. It meant the studios could transform their most exciting movies into even more exciting IMAX movies. The first film to employ this technique was Apollo 13, and it met with tremendous acclaim many months after the movie's original release. After that, Hollywood's romance with IMAX blossomed.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, IMAX has expanded all over the globe. Its new digital projection and sound systems - combined with a growing blockbuster film slate - are fueling the rapid expansion of the IMAX network in established markets like North America, Western Europe and Japan, as well as emerging markets such as China and Russia. IMAX now works with directors like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Tim Burton and Michael Bay to launch movies like Avatar, The Dark Knight Rises, Alice in Wonderland and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.


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