Why FIRST MAN’s IMAX release is a bad sign

The IMAX formats can be confusing. If a film is projecting in IMAX, does that mean it was shot on IMAX cameras?

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Shooting in IMAX is rarer than one may think. This year, only four films used IMAX cameras. Two of them were documentaries, America’s Musical Journey and Pandas. Avengers: Infinity War was the first film to shoot entirely on IMAX digital cameras. And Damien Chazelle’s First Man, starring Ryan Gosling, shot its lunar sequence on IMAX film cameras.

We’ve heard a lot about IMAX 70mm — the largest film image possible, seen in a 1.43:1 aspect ratio on screens as large as 80 feet by 100 feet — with Christopher Nolan films, the format’s most prominent user. And while there are comparatively very few theaters that can project in IMAX 70mm, that’s always been an option for Nolan films, and for most other films shot on IMAX 70mm. But it’s not for First Man.

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First reported by Trailer Track’s Anton Volkov, First Man will not be showing in IMAX 70mm, despite shooting on IMAX 70mm cameras. The reason why is a bit unclear at the moment.

The IMAX footage runs about 8 minutes, which is among the least amount when it comes to similar films; Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and Dunkirk all have over an hour of footage. But the lunar sequence is visually grand and, quite evidently, holds thematic weight, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens similarly had a short singular sequence and received an IMAX 70mm run.

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The film was also partially shot on Super 16mm, and a potential test of the IMAX film blow-up of that much smaller footage might’ve resulted in visual issues.

Whatever the reason, it’s a bit unprecedented. Before First Man, 12 mainstream Hollywood films used IMAX 70mm cameras, and 11 of them received IMAX 70mm releases of some sort.

The Dark Knight

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While exact numbers are difficult to find, The Dark Knight likely released on dozens of IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm, considering the extent of the IMAX 70mm release of The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight even got re-released in the format earlier this year on a number of screens.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

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Exact numbers are also tough to find, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen certainly received an IMAX 70mm release, with director Michael Bay talking about it himself.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

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The only Mission: Impossible film shot on IMAX cameras, Ghost Protocol released on at least 42 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

The Dark Knight Rises

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One of the largest, if not the largest IMAX 70mm Hollywood release, The Dark Knight Rises played on at least 83 IMAX screens in the US, Canada, and the UK in the format. It’s safe to assume that the number is larger, possibly even exceeding 100 screens, when taking into account the rest of the world.

Star Trek Into Darkness

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Exact numbers for Star Trek Into Darkness are elusive. What we do know is that it’s release was a little different. Instead of showing in 2D IMAX 70mm with IMAX sequences expanding to a 1.43:1 aspect ratio, it apparently showed in 3D IMAX 70mm with IMAX sequences expanding to a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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According to Volkov’s reporting at the time, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire screened on at least 16 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

Lucy

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Lucy is the one anomaly. It was shot on IMAX 70mm cameras, and marketed as such in a French trailer, but that fact seemed to disappear quickly. The film’s IMAX sequences were cropped to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of 35mm, and the film didn’t release on IMAX 70mm.

Interstellar

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Interstellar released on approximately 50 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens released on 15 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice released on 12 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

Dunkirk

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Dunkirk released on 37 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Despite cropping its IMAX 70mm sequences to 2.39:1, similarly to Lucy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi still released on 12 IMAX screens in IMAX 70mm.


So while Lucy is technically the first film shot on IMAX 70mm cameras not to release in IMAX 70mm, First Man will be the first film shot on IMAX 70mm cameras to have footage that expands to the full 1.43:1 aspect ratio and not release in IMAX 70mm.

What does this mean for how people will get to watch First Man?

Developed in the past five years, the IMAX laser system — dual 4K projection versus the approximate 18K (some say 12K or even 8K) equivalency of IMAX 70mm projection, though it does have double the contrast ratio — can project in 1.43:1. The bad news is that the laser system is still relatively new. While there are 142 theaters in development or under renovation to install the system, set to occur between 2018 and 2022, there are approximately only 15 locations in the US and roughly 40 internationally (a few systems may have finished installation between the announcement in April and now) that currently have the system.

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That means that, even though there are dozens more screens large enough for full 1.43:1 projection, screens that have gotten films such as Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm, those that do not have the laser system will be stuck with the 1.90:1 aspect ratio of IMAX xenon, its more standard system.

There are evident, large differences in sharpness, brightness, color, contrast, and sound between the two digital systems, but the screen size difference is the most significant. IMAX have strangely been mostly marketing the IMAX screenings of First Man as having 26% more image during its IMAX sequence, which is the difference for 1.90:1, as well as not clarifying that the IMAX cameras it used were specifically film cameras, which are the cameras that achieve 1.43:1. Recently, through the Autonation IMAX at the Museum of Discovery & Science, they promoted the true picture increase of 40% that the 1.43:1 aspect ratio brings. But this is something that IMAX explicitly mentioned in their on-site promotion of Dunkirk, and not mentioning it in a similar way for First Man is odd.

IMAX have diluted their own product before. There are hundreds of “IMAX” screens with 1.90:1 screen sizes and width not nearly close to 1.43:1 sized screens, which often measure 70 to 80 feet in width. Due to these smaller screens that have systems that project in lower quality and worse color, sharpness, and the like — and due to these theaters selling equally as expensive tickets and IMAX not being more upfront about the differences — the term “LieMax” was coined.

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But with First Man, this seems a bit extreme. If the laser system is the next generation of IMAX, why not highlight its unique projection capabilities, especially when the film is not getting an IMAX 70mm release?

That may be because it’s actually a bit messy with the laser system, as there are certain locations with it, but screen sizes not big enough for 1.43:1, meaning that the image would only be 1.90:1. It’s currently unclear if all of the screens in development and under renovation are capable of 1.43:1, but it might be safe to assume that a number of them are 1.90:1. Some of the current 1.90:1 laser venues are the two Cineworlds at Sheffield and London Leicester Square in the UK and many of the Gaumont/Pathe venues in France. While the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California, is often confused as one of the true IMAX screens — its width at 90 feet — it measures only 46 feet tall, which is 1.95:1.


Unless there are specialty IMAX 70mm screenings in the future, or regular 70mm conversions — both of which seem unlikely — IMAX laser will offer both the best image quality and the largest possible image for First Man. Here are the confirmed venues that will show First Man in IMAX laser. Unless otherwise noted, the screens are capable of 1.43:1 image size.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

US
TCL Chinese Theatres IMAX — Hollywood, California
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
AMC Universal CityWalk Stadium 19 & IMAX — Universal City, CA
AMC Metreon — San Francisco, CA
AMC Lincoln Square 13 & IMAX — New York, NY
IMAX, The Bullock Texas State History Museum — Austin, TX
Branson’s IMAX — Entertainment Complex — Branson, MO
Navy Pier IMAX at AMC — Chicago, IL
Sunbrella IMAX 3D Theater Reading — Reading, MA
Lockheed Martin IMAX, National Air & Space Museum — Washington, DC
Airbus IMAX, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center — Chantilly, VA
Autonation IMAX, Museum of Discovery and Science — Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Boeing IMAX, Pacific Science Center — Seattle, Washington

Canada
Scotiabank Toronto & IMAX — Toronto, Ontario

UK
Cineworld Sheffield & IMAX — Sheffield, England
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
*The Cineworld in London Leicester Square is currently being used for the London Film Festival

Australia/New Zealand
IMAX, Melbourne Museum — Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Event Cinemas Queen Street & IMAX — Auckland, New Zealand

Germany
IMAX 3D, Sinsheim Auto & Technik Museum — Sinsheim, Germany

Norway
Odeon Oslo & IMAX — Oslo, Norway
*Likely cuts off at 1.90:1, but possibly can project the occasionally used 1.66:1 aspect ratio as the screen measures to that ratio

Russia
Formula Kino Kutuzovsky & IMAX — Moscow, Russia
*Cuts off at 1.90:1

South Korea
CGV Yongsan I-Park Mall & IMAX — Yongsan-Gu, Seoul, South Korea


There are certainly more venues in other countries — and potentially even more in the countries listed above — that will show First Man in IMAX laser; IMAX’s “Chief Quality Officer” says there will be approximately 50. It’s simply a bit difficult to confirm which ones, especially with a later release date in some countries. There are some that will likely not, such as certain educational/science venues, and those aren’t listed. But there are plenty that might.

US
Hackworth IMAX Dome, the Tech Museum — San Jose, California
*Screen size unclear
*Currently under renovation to install the laser system, and might show First Man upon re-opening in November

UK
Vue Manchester IMAX & the Printworks — Manchester, England
*Currently under renovation to install the laser system, and might show First Man upon re-opening in November

France
Gaumont Archamps & IMAX — Archamps, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Gaumont Disney Village & IMAX — Paris, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Gaumont Montpellier Multiplexe & IMAX — Montpellier, France
Gaumont Parc Millesime & IMAX — Thillois, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Cinema Gaumont Labège & IMAX — Toulouse, France
*Screen size unclear
Pathe Plan de Campagne & IMAX — Marseille, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Pathe La Valette & IMAX — La Valette-Du-Var, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Pathe Conflans & IMAX — Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
Pathe Saran & IMAX — Saran, France
*Cuts off at 1.90:1

Germany
Filmpalast AM ZKM & IMAX — Karlsruhe, Germany
Cinestar Berlin & IMAX — Berlin, Germany

Italy
UCI Cinemas Orio & IMAX — Azzano San Paolo (BG), Italy
*Cuts off at 1.90:1

Belgium
Kinepolis Brussels & IMAX — Brussels, Belgium
Pathé Charleroi & IMAX — Charleroi, Belgium
*Cuts off at 1.90:1

Switzerland
Pathe Mall of Switzerland & IMAX — Ebikon-Lucerne, Switzerland
*Screen size unclear

Netherlands
Pathe Arena & IMAX — Amsterdam, Netherlands
*Cuts off at 1.90:1
*Will install the laser system and re-open in November. Currently showing First Man in IMAX xenon, but might show the film in laser upon re-opening

Japan
109 Cinemas Osaka Expocity & IMAX — Osaka, Japan

Taiwan
Miramar IMAX — Taipei, Taiwan

Philippines
Vista Cinemas & IMAX — Las Piñas, Philippines
*Screen size unclear
*Currently installing the laser system

UAE
Vox Cinemas & IMAX — Dubai, UAE
*Cuts off at 1.90:1

Qatar
Novo Mall of Qatar & IMAX — Doha, Qatar
*Screen size unclear


The fact that First Man is not releasing in IMAX 70mm at all is potentially a bad sign for the future of films shot on these cameras. Whenever Christopher Nolan decides to use the cameras, we’ll likely see all of those films projected in the format. Warner Bros., Nolan’s main studio partners, will potentially continue to make prints for films shot on the format after the success of his films; their upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 will be partially shot on IMAX 70mm. And Paramount, having been the main distributors for three of the 12 films shot on IMAX 70mm (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and Star Trek Into Darkness) as well as the US distributor for Interstellar, might also be willing to make future prints.

Plus, Warner Bros. have made IMAX 70mm prints for a number of films not shot on those cameras (such as the first two The Hobbit films, Man of Steel, and Pacific Rim), as have Disney (Iron Man 3 and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Fox (Prometheus), and Sony (The Amazing Spider-Man). These likely mean that these studios are more willing to make prints when an IMAX 70mm camera is used, if they’d make prints when they’re not. So, the total disappearance of IMAX 70mm projection of such films is unlikely in the immediate future (they’ll surely stay around much longer in educational/science institutions).

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

But First Man’s release — along with the declining number of prints being struck for these films, the increasing number of IMAX laser systems, and the decreasing number of IMAX 70mm projectors (oftentimes, an installation of the IMAX laser system means the disappearance of an IMAX 70mm projector) — may be the first noticeable sign that there’s a chance that such projection of such films will disappear sooner than we may have thought.

*With reporting by Anton Volkov