Coming attraction: Imax theater in Noblesville: Technology lets theaters show Hollywood blockbusters

Once upon a time not so long ago, Imax films were nearly synonymous with museums.

In Indianapolis and elsewhere, the largeformat movie screens-some as big as the side of an eight-story building-featured 40-minute films that took viewers to exotic places like outer space or the top of Mount Everest, and were usually attached to educational and cultural institutions.

But technology that debuted in 2002 is bringing Imax screens to suburbia-including to Noblesville in 2008.

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Goodrich Quality Theaters Inc. plans to include an Imax screen at its 16-screen cinema slated for Noblesville’s Hamilton Town Centre.

Like other suburban Imax theaters, the Noblesville screen likely will feature a steady stream of digitally remastered Hollywood films. The technological advancement that permits the conversion of mainstream films to the Imax format has swelled the size of the Imax library and fueled a proliferation of screens.

The format has become increasingly popular in commercial theaters because of its high-definition quality that allows moviegoers to sit closer to bigger screens, producing the effect of being inside the movie.

Unlike the last time two large-format theaters operated in the Indianapolis area,
both Imax screens should fare well, retail observers said.

In 1996, an Imax opened in White River State Park, and the CineDome large-format theater opened at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Peter Sterling, then president of the Children’s Museum, had pushed for the $15 million theater over the objections of community leaders who questioned whether Indianapolis could support two.

It turns out, it couldn’t. Amid declining attendance, the Children’s Museum shuttered the venue in 2002, converting the space into its $25 million Dinosphere exhibit. The downtown Imax, now part of the Indiana State Museum, continues to operate and performs well.

Because the new Imax screen will be 25 miles away, and will be able to pluck features from a nearly 250-film library, the two venues will have little impact on each other, retail observers said.

“It’s two completely different markets,” said Mark Perlstein, a principal at locally based Linder Co., a retail real estate brokerage. “You have to look at who the typical customer is downtown and who the typical customer of the [new] center will be.”

Hamilton Town Centre is expected to bring in customers from the Interstate 69 corridor, lured by 950,000 square feet of shopping, dining and entertainment options. The project is being developed by Simon Property Group Inc. and Gershman
Brown & Associates, both of Indianapolis.

White River State Park, on the other hand, is a popular destination for families and school groups from around the state. Many take in an Imax movie during their visit to one of the museums along the Central Canal.

“We think it would be a positive impact,” increasing awareness of the benefits of the large-format technology, said Dave Brown, the Imax operator at White River State Park.

That theater is one of a handful of the 280 Imax screens worldwide operated directly by Toronto-based Imax Corp., rather than a third party.

The company took over the theater’s operations in 2002, when it reopened following the construction of the Indiana State Museum. Since then, Brown said,
it’s consistently drawn about 240,000 patrons annually, 30,000 or so more than when the park operated it.

Attendance has been boosted by Hollywood films like “Polar Express,” shown in 3D on the Imax screen. The past two holiday seasons, “Polar Express” shows at White River State Park regularly sold out, Brown said, and the theater expects similar crowds this year.

Brown and an Imax Corp. spokesman stressed that plans aren’t complete for an Imax screen at Hamilton Town Centre.

In Louisville, which has had two Imax screens for several years, attendance at the Louisville Science Center’s Imax theater hasn’t suffered from the presence of a commercial suburban Imax screen, said Gail Becker, executive director of the downtown museum.

The museum, which unveiled its Imax theater in 1988, continues to draw more school groups, while the suburban Imax caters to traditional moviegoers, she said.

“A good number of our visitors come for the total experience of the [museum] exhibits and Imax,” Becker said.

Nationally, as in Louisville, Hollywood films remastered for Imax, such as “Superman,” paved the way for the construction of more Imax screens.

The filming of traditional Imax movies requires special, expensive equipment and film, limiting the number that can be produced annually. Technology allowing any movie to be converted for showing on the big screen, often in 3D, has made the million-dollar-plus investment worthwhile for cinema operators, said Bob Goodrich, owner of Goodrich Quality Theaters.

“There’s so many titles available now, it should be more than enough to continue to support [both Imax screens],” Goodrich said. “People will have more chances to go than they previously had.”

Goodrich operates theaters at 31 locations. The Noblesville complex would be its third with an Imax screen, following one in suburban Chicago that opened this month and one in Portage slated to open Dec. 22.

Goodrich plans to show traditional Imax movies along with Hollywood films as well as reaching out to schools and other groups.

The recent performance of Hollywood films in the Imax format bodes well for Goodrich’s investment.

“Happy Feet,” an animated featurelength film about penguins, opened nationwide Nov. 17. During the movie’s opening weekend, $2.4 million of its $41.5 million in box office receipts came from the 79 Imax screens that showed the movie.

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