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The 3D That Got Away: Part III

The 3D That Got Away: Part III

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As many have already witnessed with "The Polar Express," a computer animated film can be successfully translated into IMAX 3D. However, few remember the day when the first feature-length transfer was supposed to belong to a giant green ogre.


At Universal Studios parks in Hollywood, Orlando, and Osaka visitors become enthralled in the adventures of Shrek, Princess Fiona and Donkey in the incredible attraction "Shrek 4D." Almost three years earlier, in a June, 2000 press release, Imax announced the following:

Dreamworks SKG and IMAX Corporation today announced a breakthrough in the history of animation with the news that DreamWorks will release an animated film in 3D to IMAX theatres. In December 2001, Dreamworks' "Shrek," the upcoming animated film featuring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow and Linda Hunt, will be presented in 3D at IMAX theatres. The film will be initially released in conventional 2D in 35mm on May 18, 2001, and will feature an enhanced ending filled with 3D effects and created just for the IMAX 3D release.

You can read the entire press release here.


"Shrek 3D" fellvictim to Dreamwork's excitement over a new technology, combined with a bad fiscal year for Imax. The technology to convert 2D computer animation into IMAX 3D had already been proven in Imax's compilation film Cyberworld, which featured IMAX 3D conversions of both a scene from the Dreamworks film "ANTZ" and the computer animated segment of "The Simpsons' Treehouse of Terror." Pacific Data Images, which would later be acquired by and incorporated in Dreamworks Animation, had animated both segments. Although Cyberworld was made just to showcase the conversion technology, many complained that it lacked a coherent storyline. "Shrek," on the other hand, had a full, well-rounded story. The conversion was 80% complete when Imax withdrew its support.

It's not that Imax didn't like the film. In fact, they loved it. But on Oct. 12 2000, tragedy struck. Imax stock closed that day at $14.50 per share. By the next day, the stock closed at $4.28 per share - a drop of almost 70% overnight! This crisis was the result of analysts downsizing Imax's value. They had -- over the past year -- signed contracts with theater chains such as Regal Cinemas, Edwards Theaters, and United Artists. The problem was that each of these companies had over expanded over the past few years, and now they were each declaring bankruptcy. It would be difficult for Imax to make a profit when these chains' IMAX theaters had still to be built, or even worse, they were trying to opt out of their Imax projector lease agreements.

Imax went into crisis control. The company downsized, selling off its Digital Projection division. It took itself off the market, as it felt any purchase price for Imax would not be truly reflective of the company's value. And it backed out of its financial obligation to Dreamworks for the IMAX 3D version of "Shrek." At the same time, Jeffrey Katzenberg was enamored with the 3D conversion. He continued to authorize additional changes between the 35mm and IMAX 3D versions, to the point where the IMAX version now had a price tag of almost $10 million. For a typical large format distribution company, or even a company undergoing financial hardship like Imax, this was unheard of - especially in an industry where the average IMAX film costs no more than $3 million. By comparison, a 2D conversion from 35mm to IMAX using Imax's DMR technology, only costs between 2 to 4 million dollars. But don't worry - the files are complete for the IMAX 3D version of "Shrek." If a company were willing to help finance and distribute it, Dreamworks is still willing to release it.


It's because of the differing corporate structures between the large format film industry and conventional Hollywood that "The Polar Express" did not open in IMAX in 26 markets. I, for instance, live in Sacramento, only 10 blocks from one of the finest IMAX theaters in the country, but in order to see "The Polar Express," I had to commute two hours into Downtown San Francisco. Theaters and film studios have an unwritten agreement called "film distribution zones." Usually, this means that if a film is showing at one cinema, the studios will not book it at a competing cinema within a five-mile radius. It's for this reason that in markets such as Sacramento, we've had to wait two to three months after the release of a film in a 35mm theater before we can see it in IMAX. Such films as the two "Matrix" sequels (including "The Matrix Reloaded," whose IMAX version was released worldwide two weeks after the 35mm version), "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," and "Spiderman 2" have been affected by this rule.

It's amazing that the studios are not differentiating between the IMAX and 35mm product. Quite simply, an IMAX film cannot be shown on a regular projector. Even more astonishing is that they are considering a 2D 35mm film and an IMAX 3D film, as is the case with "The Polar Express," as the same product. Failure to be able to show a Hollywood film could spell death for an IMAX theater, such as the US Bank IMAX Theater, in Newport, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati. The theater was unable to show the IMAX versions of the movies showing the cineplex located in the very same mall, and permanently locked its doors in June 2003, having been open less than two years.

The following list of IMAX theaters not showing Polar Express was compiled using the following criteria:

  • All theaters listed are either commercial theaters or nonprofit theaters showing commercial films such as Santa vs. the Snowman or feature-length Hollywood films.
  • IMAX Dome and IMAX 2D theaters have been listed, as "The Polar Express" is being distributed in both 2D and 3D versions to IMAX theaters.
  • If two theaters exist in a market, and one is showing the film, neither theater has been included on this list.
  • Because "The Polar Express" is being distributed exclusively to IMAX theaters, those theaters using large format projection systems by other manufacturers have been excluded from the list.
  • Not all theaters listed have the capability to show feature-length IMAX films. However, converting the equipment can be done overnight and for a minimal expense.

Birmingham, AL McWane Center
Sacramento, CA Esquire IMAX Theatre
Washington, DC National Air and Space Museum
Washington, DC National Museum of Natural History
Daytona Beach, FL Daytona USA
St. Augustine, FL World Golf Village
Tallahassee, FL Challenger Learning Center
Indianapolis, IN IMAX Theatre at Indiana State Museum
Cedar Rapids, IA Science Station
Davenport, IA Putnam Museum
Hutchinson, KS Kansas Cosmosphere
New Orleans, LA Entergy IMAX Theater
Shreveport, LA Sci-Port IMAX Dome
Branson, MO Branson's IMAX
Kansas City, MO Kansas City Zoo
Omaha, NB Henry Doorly Zoo
Alamogordo, NM New Mexico Museum of Space History
Garden City, NY Cradle of Aviation Museum
Harrisburg, PA Whitaker Center
Providence, RI Feinstein IMAX Theatre
Myrtle Beach, SC Myrtle Beach IMAX Theater
Chattanooga, TN Tennessee Aquarium
Fort Worth, TX Fort Worth Museum of Science
Galveston, TX Moody Gardens
Salt Lake City, UT Clark Planetarium
Milwaukee, WI Milwaukee Public Museum

If you'd like this rule to change, so that you can enjoy Hollywood entertainment the day it's released in your local IMAX theater, please contact the following:

Imax Corporation
2525 Speakman Drive
Mississauga, Ontario
L5K 1B1, Canada
(905) 403-6450

National Association of Theater Owners (NATO)
750 First St. N.E.
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 962-0054

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
15503 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA 91436
(818) 995-6600

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