Beyond Imax: Premium Movie Formats Are Looking for a Windfall as ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Takes Off

·5 min read

As blockbusters have done the vast majority of the work in getting audiences back to theaters over the past year, premium large formats like Imax have reaped the benefits as fans of Marvel and James Bond pay top dollar to see their heroes on the biggest screen possible. Yet with Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” coming this Memorial Day weekend, the best may still be yet to come for premium movie formats.

“In the past year, we’ve seen 35 to 40% of a blockbuster’s opening weekend come from premium formats,” Don Savant, former Imax executive and CEO of CJ 4DPlex, told TheWrap. “What we’re doing is so much different than what you can get at home, and we’ve seen more and more people discover that, especially after the buzz that ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ got from influencers saying that the film should be seen in 4DX.”

Premium large formats — or PLFs as they are called by execs in the field — also accounted for 36% of the $187 million opening weekend of Disney/Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” earlier this month. Imax, king of the PLFs, led the field with 10% of the overall opening while 3D formats accounted for 9%, a share similar to that of 2019 Marvel films “Captain Marvel” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

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But along with these PLFs are other options that more cineplexes are adopting, including Dolby Cinemas and CJ 4DPlex’s ScreenX and 4DX theaters. Like Imax, these formats have seen their awareness among moviegoers rise and should continue to do so with upcoming 2022 blockbusters that not only provide spectacle but specifically lend themselves to the sort of experiences PLFs provide.

The surreal and often unnerving imagery of “Doctor Strange 2” was heightened by the depth created with 3D glasses. Another film with PLF potential is Paramount/Skydance’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” a film due next week that’s being praised by critics as a thrill ride in movie form. And when it comes to thrill-ride movies, ScreenX and 4DX want to make that literal. While 4DX jostles around the audience in moving seats loaded with water sprays, fog jets and scent emitters, ScreenX surrounds them with screens on the side of the auditorium that fill up their peripheral vision.

Both formats work particularly well with films that seek to immerse viewers in a world completely different to our own, whether it’s the surreal multiverse that Doctor Strange journeys through or the high-speed, high-stakes aerial dogfights that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his team of aspiring Navy aces embark on.

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And that’s just the blockbusters out this month. In the coming months, PLFs will be able to sell themselves through Taika Waititi’s over-the-top alien worlds in “Thor: Love and Thunder” and the terror and wonder of the dinosaurs of Univeral’s “Jurassic World: Dominion.” And at the end of the year, the sequel to the film that began the early 2010s 3D craze, “Avatar,” will finally arrive from Disney/Twentieth Century.

It’s unlikely that the record numbers for 3D ticket sales seen for that 2009 blockbuster will ever come back. Even before the pandemic, Comscore reported that domestic 3D ticket grosses had shrunk 72%, from $1.85 billion in 2010 to $512 million in 2019.

But films like “Avatar 2” and “Doctor Strange 2,” both made with 3D in mind throughout the production process, may be able to give a small rebound for Imax’s 3D screenings, which the company curtailed in the latter half of the 2010s, and for RealD, the industry’s top 3D exhibitor which opened its 500th premium “Ultimate Screen” auditorium earlier this year in China.

Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock points out that the reason 3D fell off so quickly is because audiences got wise to when a film wasn’t really made to allow the format to enhance it. “3D will get a second chance if Hollywood doesn’t oversaturate theaters with it,” he said. “When studios work with filmmakers on making the format feel organic to the film the way James Cameron does, 3D can end up playing a role in rebuilding the box office by adding a few extra bucks per ticket from fans who want that extra experience.”

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For many PLF companies, 2022 will be a busy year of expansion. Imax is expanding into live events with a new broadcast system that will allow the company to hold Q&A sessions between filmmakers and auditoriums worldwide as well as live broadcasts of concerts and sporting events.

CJ 4DPlex, meanwhile, is hoping to build on the momentum from Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and this year’s blockbusters and expand its ScreenX and 4DX screen count into new cinemas seeking to retain (or lure back) moviegoers. Savant points out that it’s easier for theaters to convert an auditorium into one of its formats than Imax.

“Obviously with Imax, you need an auditorium big enough to fit their larger screens. With ScreenX and 4DX, we’re able to convert into a wider range of auditoriums regardless of screen size, and that has opened up the number of potential locations we can expand to.”

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