IMAX producers dream big

James Cameron is the director. The subject of the movie is a legendary luxury ship that struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage and sunk to the depths of the North Atlantic. The title is ... not what you're thinking.

It's "Ghosts of the Abyss," a large-format -- what most people call IMAX -- documentary about the remains of the Titanic on the ocean floor. The movie is a benchmark in the IMAX genre, the first to be directed by a big-name Hollywood director.

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AP Photo

A truck carrying an IMAX 3D camera makes its way around the track at Martinsville Speedway before the start of the NASCAR Virginia 500. The footage, shot April 13, will be part of an IMAX documentary on NASCAR.

As important as the casting are the movie's visual effects -- the grandeur of the large-screen format and the 3-D photography, which is sure to elicit ooh's and aah's from moviegoers.

All this bodes well for "Ghosts"" drawing power.

But there's more at stake here than just the success of one movie. If "Ghosts of the Abyss" does well, it could be something of a lifeboat for the large-format business, which has encountered some unexpected rough seas recently in its voyage from an "edutainment" to an entertainment industry.

Changing interests

Large-format movies started off as a gee-whiz concept. The first IMAX movie, "Tiger Child," shown at Expo '70 in Japan, mixed shocking scenes -- such as images of thalidomide babies and an anarchist shooting into a crowd -- with images of stunning beauty.

But with the premiere of "To Fly!" at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in 1976, the format quickly morphed into an educational medium. Science- and nature-themed movies shown in a low-key way at museums and historic sites were the rule for the next 20 years.

But then in the late '90s, the industry began to change.

In 1998, a pivotal film, "Everest," was released by MacGillivray Freeman Films. It recently became the top-grossing IMAX film ever, having earned $120 million, about as much as "Speed" made in the United States.

Greg MacGillivray, the producer and co-director of "Everest," says the film advanced the concept of what an IMAX film could be. Yes, there was the usual nature footage, but this time there was also a compelling human story: the tragic deaths of eight climbers on the mountain and the seemingly miraculous survival of others.

"We told the story really beautifully. It was poetic; it wasn't just a male-dominated machismo testosterone drama," says MacGillivray. "It took two years to edit the film; we told the story very carefully and very sensitively to appeal to women (too)."

James Hyder, publisher and editor of LF Examiner, a magazine devoted to news about the industry, says other factors also were crucial to "Everest" grossing $20 million in the first 11 weeks of its release, something unheard of for an IMAX film until then.

"It wasn't until 'Everest' that anyone made a serious effort to have a national opening" with an IMAX film, says Hyder. "And there was a fairly major marketing and public relations campaign surrounding it."

Novelty niche

More than 80 percent of all IMAX theaters in the United States were built during that boom in the late '90s and early 21st century.

But the reaction from audiences as good as expected.

"They were very well accepted at first, but after the first six months, attendance dropped off," says Terrell Falk, vice president of marketing for Cinemark U.S.A. She said the industry learned that people were going once to have the experience, but not necessarily returning to see new films.

That changed in December 2000 when Disney released "Fantasia 2000," a sequel to Disney's 1940 animated classic. Now, for the first time, audiences were being offered an important IMAX product that was similar in content to the types of movies they were used to seeing at multiplexes.

"Fantasia 2000" grossed $60 million in the United States in its first year, $89 million internationally.

"It showed theaters and filmmakers that if you have a product, audiences will come," says Falk.

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