Last year's Aziz Ansari-initiated uproar over digital IMAX versus "real" IMAX did little to stop the spread of the "poor man"'s large format. More and more theaters are charging extra for converted theaters with slightly larger screens and high-end digital projection and sound. As you may know, IMAX is no longer the only player in the game: over the past few months, Cinemark has been rolling out something it calls "XD" or "Extreme Digital Cinema" at theaters across the country. (IMAX and Cinemark have since hit each other with patent and breach of contract lawsuits.) It promises "extra large, extreme entertainment" and an "intense experience in every seat." But intense sensory experiences don't come cheap: a ticket to an XD showing will run you $3 dollars extra. Here in San Francisco, seeing a movie at the only XD theater costs $14.

I went to see Edge of Darkness in XD on Friday. What struck me was how little effort was even made to pitch it as some sort of "sensory experience." Were it not for a brief, flashy intro -- the sort of AV exhibition we used to see for Dolby Digital and THX -- and the hefty price tag, I wouldn't even have known that I was watching anything special. Once the movie started, I got what I would ordinarily expect from a new, high-end movie theater: a big screen, excellent projection, and powerful sound. No one could have mistaken it for a "large format."

I am not outraged. But what's happening here, it's clear, is a further tiering of the moviegoing experience. Your $11 ticket will get you into a perfectly adequate theater, which with luck will have decent projection and sound. You want the good stuff? That'll be $14.To some extent, of course, this was always the case: flashy new theaters generally (though not always) charged more than crummy old ones. But it's never been quite this explicit.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with this arrangement. For one thing, having the option to go high-end or not is probably preferable (for both patrons and theater owners) to ticket prices rising across the board. And I'm not even saying that seeing Edge of Darkness in XD wasn't worth the extra $3, if you can afford it: the movie looked and sounded terrific. But selling it as some sort of theme park ride-type experience is dishonest. The right analogy, for both XD and Digital IMAX, is when theaters started installing digital sound systems in some auditoriums in the 90s (remember the little "Dolby" tag that would accompany the movie listings?). The question, I guess, is whether you're comfortable with this sort of stratification -- and whether you're willing to pay extra for the top-of-the-line, as opposed to merely good.
categories Movies, Cinematical