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.
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