Size Matters or What’s an IMAX?: Thoughts on Branding and Meaning

london_imax_cinema1_2The recent flap over whether an IMAX screen is really an IMAX screen shows how fragile a brand can be. As some of you may have heard, actor Aziz Ansari went to see Star Trek at an IMAX theater in Burbank and paid a five dollar premium to do so. But when Mr. Ansari went into the theater, he was not in a wonderful, cavernous theater. Instead he was watching the film on a screen not much larger than an ordinary screen. Ansari blogged about his displeasure and the news spread. At first IMAX played the corporate head-in-the-sand/obfuscate game with statements on Wired asserting that IMAX does not mean 72 foot screen and that the new theaters may be smaller but they still deliver the IMAX experience. And there’s the problem. IMAX thinks it knows what the experience is and means to its consumers (or it certainly wants to try and tell consumers what it means). So it appeared that IMAX fell into the control-the-meaning of the mark trap, which Sandra Rierson and I have argued is futile and causes serious problems for trademark law. Yet there seems to be a useful lesson and happy ending to this trademark story.

IMAX is expanding rapidly and becoming a big player in Hollywood’s attempt to keep the theater experience alive. So IMAX is partnering with theaters to install IMAX branded theaters at mulitplexes. The strategy has worked to expand the company’s reach. Now that it is summertime, however, the strategy is being tested, for summertime means tent pole movies, and many more people wanting that summer movie thrill. Indeed, ever since television, Hollywood has tried to offer viewers an experience that they cannot have at home: bigger screens, better sound, special effects that make your head explode. Technology and trademarks have traveled along with that quest. Panavision, Cinemascope, Dolby, THX, and DTS, signified a way of filming and/or presenting a film in a theater. They became trademarks as well. Recently, with the growth of home theaters Hollywood has been looking for new ways to make the public theater experience worthwhile. IMAX seems to be the latest way to indicate a special experience that is often lacking in cinema houses today.

I certainly miss the movie palaces of L.A. For me, 70mm screens and sound that may break up kidney stones are worth the eleven or twelve dollars a ticket can cost in a major city. Sadly, movie palaces gave way to multiplexes, and so one rarely can find that all encompassing, immersion a single, massive screen offers. IMAX has started to fill this gap. Yet, in my opinion, the company is diluting its brand by offering what many would call non-IMAX experiences under the name IMAX.

For me, and I think many others too, IMAX began as a way to see amazing nature films on a massive screen with excellent sound. Part of that experience included education about filming on IMAX equipment and screening films in theaters that could handle films shot with that equipment. So when studios started showing studio films at IMAX theaters, I was elated. Now the large screen, excellent picture, amazing sound experience was back. And I am willing to pay three to five dollars more to see a film created with that technology in such a venue. So IMAX came to mean just that: a film shot with certain equipment and shown in a certain way.

Nonetheless, in pursuing its goal of rapid expansion, IMAX was willing to buy its view or rationalization that the experience and image it built of a 72 foot screen and sound experience was essentially the same as a smaller screen because of “‘perceived screen size,’ which involves the relationship of the viewer to the screen.” Enter the Net. Ansari’s rant, Wired’s coverage, and the Los Angeles Times’ blog on the subject, are just a few examples of how much IMAX missed the point of the very image it built. One group even put a quick Google Map called IMAX or LIEMAX to show “known ‘real/fake’ IMAX screens, based on screen size and aspect ratio.”

To IMAX’s credit, the approach seems to be changing. Although the CEO appears to be sticking to the claim that one must appreciate that the ratio of screen to distance matters, he has also said “I want to be clear, … We’re going to do something about disclosing information. Period. The market research survey is really just to help figure out what to do, not if we should do something. We are going to give people more information — it’s just a matter of how and where.”

If IMAX follows through and makes sure customers know what they are getting before they buy the ticket, I, for one, will be a loyal customer. Regardless, the companies should realize that forcing views on customers may be possible when one starts a brand but once that meaning is out there, the consumer can become quite upset at deviations from expected results. Luckily, today’s world of rapid feedback presents the opportunity for a company to correct its course rather quickly. Hopefully, they will do so.

IMAGE: London IMAX
License: Public Domain

One thought on “Size Matters or What’s an IMAX?: Thoughts on Branding and Meaning

  1. Personally, I don’t really like watching movies on a 72-foot screen. I’d rather have a smaller screen where I can take in all parts of the screen at the same time.

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