Category Archives: Large Format

IHS: 72 PLF Brands Compete With Imax (But Only Two Are a Threat)

PLD Premium Large Format

IHS Technology recently published an Insight Report on “The market for Premium Large Format (PLF) cinema” as part of its Cinema Intelligence Service. Authored by Principal Analyst Charlotte Jones, the report does an excellent job of providing a comprehensive and data-focused overview of the PLF market.

With “Interstellar” shortly set to lift off in Imax, PLF and 70mm screens, it is thus worth shining a bright light on the biggest of all screens in the cinema business.

Premium large format (PLF) is a market that was practically invented by Imax but only took off when the large format (LF) operator switched from 40-50 minute documentaries in museums and institutions to showing first-run Hollywood films multiplexes.

Having survived the “Lie-MAX” backlash in 2009 of retrofitting Imax screens into too-small multiplex auditoriums, Imax has grown strongly on the back of the initial popularity of 3D films (think: “Avatar”) as well as major international expansion.

But Imax strict business terms and high licence fees, coupled with advances in digital cinema technology, has led many cinema chains to launch their own-brand PLF screens, often in competition or in parallel to Imax’s screens.

The PLF space has received a recent boost from the launch of the Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro 11.1 immersive audio (IA) formats that help distinguish PLF screens from non-premium screens, as well as the imminent launch of laser projection for high-brightness stereoscopic 3D on even the largest of screens. High frame rate (HFR) and 3D on the other hand are by themselves not sufficient enablers for PLF, as the report notes, even though they often command higher ticket prices.

It is the brand(ing) that has proven the key differentiator for Imax, with own-brand PLF screens struggling to match it in terms of cache and perceived value. (If you don’t believe us, we invite you to read on-line reviews of cinemas’ own-brand PLFs to see comments littered with ‘rip off’ and ‘pretend Imax’ vitriol). Yet though the report only hints at it, there are two operators/brand that post a significant threat to Imax at least in two key PLF cinema markets, which we will get to later.

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Barco Escape Gets First Real World Test With “Maze Runner”

Maze Runner In Barco Escape

This weekend’s North American debut of Twentieth Century Fox’s “Maze Runner” is enabling Barco to move forward with a new product initiative it first announced at CinemaCon earlier this year.

Barco Escape is an immersive offering being developed by the digital cinema projector manufacturer that wraps three screens around the audience to provide a 270 degree viewing experience. The additional screens are placed to the left and right of the main screen, extending the projection surface and placing images in an audience’s peripheral vision.

The existing visuals of a film shown in the Barco Escape format are not simply extended onto these new screens. Supplemental visual material must be created specifically for the increased projection areas. That is exactly what Barco had to do for the Escape version of “Maze Runner” showing in the following five specially equipped theatres throughout the United States:

  • Cinemark 18 & XD at the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center in Los Angeles
  • Cinemark Paradise 24 & XD in Davie, Florida
  • Cinemark Legacy Theatre & XD in Plano, Texas
  • Cinemark at Seven Bridges and Imax in Woodridge, Illinois
  • Cinemark’s Redwood Downtown & XD in Redwood City, California

It should be noted that each of these cinemas is owned and operated by Cinemark, a circuit that is predominantly outfitted with Barco projectors. Presumably the exhibitor is assisting the manufacturer with what Barco’s CinemaVangelist Ted Schilowitz refers to as a “technology experiment”.

“We are in probably phase two of something that is not completed yet,” Schilowitz told an audience of press and industry professionals last Wednesday evening before a special screening of the Escape version of “Maze Runner” at the Cinemark 18 in Los Angeles. “You are all getting a sneak peek of something behind the curtain. We have been working with a visual effects team on helping create some of this movie magic.”

Schilowitz was referring to the seven minutes of “Maze Runner” that are projected in the Barco Escape format. This includes the opening scene and an action sequence in the middle of the film. The vfx team will continue to work on “Maze Runner” so that in two or three months an estimated 16 to 18 minutes of the movie will be in the Escape format.

Production of content in the Escape format is one of the biggest hurdles to its adoption. The team working on “Maze Runner” utilized a gaming engine from Crytek a German video game company, to speed up the production of the computer generated visuals. The images were then rendered by supercomputers from Devil & Demon, a company for which Schilowitz serves as president.

Inside a cinema the Barco Escape format requires that an existing theatre be retrofitted not only with two additional screens on the left and right walls, but also with two additional projectors. Unlike the projector that throws the original movie onto the main screen from a projection booth in the back of an auditorium, the two ancillary projectors are mounted to the ceiling inside an auditorium and cast images across the theatre to a screen on the opposite wall.

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CJ@IBC ‘Doug Trumbull Keynote – An Odessey of Cinematic Innovation’


“There is no more appropriate visionar than Doug Trumbull to have as our keynote,” Julian Pinn says as he opens the IBC Big Screen Keynote session, listing Trumbull’s many cinematic achievements, ranging from being responsible for the groundbreaing visual effects for ’2001 a Space Odessey’ and ‘Star Trek the Motion Picture’  to writing and directing ‘Silent Running’ and ‘Back to the Future: the Ride’.

Trumbull begins by thanking the team behind the scenes. (I know that this presentation was particularly bleading edge and that the last 48 hours had been frantic in getting it all together.) He talks about his life-long fascination with science-fiction and how he liked panoramic paintings, but got frustrated that they didn’t move – hence he got into film.

From the beginning it was always the largest of screns that held the greatest fascination for him. “I was disapointed when the giant screen experience went away and they got chopped into multiplexes. 70mm production largely ended,” and this was tough for him, Trumbull admitted. Anyone who has seen a 70mm presentation of ’2001′ can probably understand his sentiment. He then switched his focus to World Fairs and Expos as a substitute for he big screen experience.

The Life and Times of a VFX Wizard

By way of introduction to his body of work and cinematic vision he then screens a short film and history which charts his journey from ’2001′ all the way to his Magi process and Trumbull Studios, with cameos by the likes of Roger Ebert, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner extolling his virtues. He then switches back to explaning how he arrived at the 70mm Showscan process in the late 70s/early80s, which he had wanted to use for his film ‘Brainstorm’, and how this in turn then led him to Magi in the present day.

“We lost track of something a long time ago when we transitioned from silent films with hand cranked cameras – we called them ‘the flicks’ for the flickering – to 24fps to accomodate the optical soundtracks. We have never insreased it since then,” Trumbul bemoans, even as color and other innovations were added. “Unfortunatelly people are now migrating away from the cinema experience, because the convenience of tablets outweighs the inconvenience of going out to the movies.”

He says that the Hollywood studios think they have the tiger by the tail… so they prefer a commonality of formats that works for cinema and television. But Trumbull sees this as a false economy if it dilutes the cinematic experience. Studios also don’t invest in R&D, prefering to leave that to manufacturers, he observes. This left him in a quandry.

Trumbull Studios

“My wife and I decided we have to do it ourselves, so we had to build the stage, bum every camera and light we could get our hands on and put together this UFOTOG film as cheaply as possibly,” Trumbull explains, bringing us into the present with his latest work. “Instead of the two cameras shooting in sync, they shoot sequentially, [and thus] they achieve 120fps for the same price as 60fps.” It is the same (Threality) rig that Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson use, with Cannon cameras. “This captures 100% of the action that goes on in ront of the camera and 120 frames of unique fields of action,”Trumbull explains.

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Giving the Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium a Closer Look

Simons IMAX Theatre

The Matthew and Marcia Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium (Photo: J. Sperling Reich)

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram are probably aware I’ve been in New England over the past two weeks. (Thus the lack of posts from me). Specifically, I was in Boston.

While there I stumbled upon the Matthew and Marcia Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium. Though “stumble upon” is hardly the proper expression and can only be used in the most figurative sense since the theatre is enormous and hard to miss. That’s kind of the point of this post.

I happened to be dining at Boston’s world famous Legal Sea Foods at Long Wharf just across the street from the aquarium and snapped a few photos of the asymmetric metallic exterior. I figured I could dash off a quick post featuring the photo with a humorous caption along the lines of “Is it just me, or is there something fishy about this IMAX theatre?”.

Upon downloading the photo from my camera I began to wonder who designed the theatre’s rippling metal exterior, as it reminded me of some of architect Frank Gehry‘s more recent work, such as Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. I hope the good folks at Verner Johnson, Inc. don’t mind that I mistook their work for Mr. Gehry’s.

Actually I’m glad my curiosity led me to investigate the Simons IMAX Theatre further to discover Verner Johnson, the only architectural firm in the United States that specializes solely in planning and designing museums. I’m surprised I wasn’t aware of them already since they have designed at least 15 IMAX theatres for museums and science centers throughout the U.S. (and even one in China).

What’s noteworthy about the Simons IMAX Theatre, and the reason I chose to expand this post beyond my questionably humorous caption, is an important feature of the auditorium that might otherwise go unnoticed; its ability to market both the aquarium and IMAX.

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RoboCop’s 3D Success in China Spells Trouble for Imax


The 10-day haul of RMB 76.3 million (USD $42 million) of RoboCop in China spells major challenge for Imax, as it affirms the arrival of its biggest potential rival on the large format (LF) and 3D scene in China and possibly beyond.

Much like Robocop vs. Enforcement Droid Series 209 in the original film, this will be an un-even match where the largest firepower will not necessarily win out over the smaller new rival. As LA Times notes, “Jose Padillha’s remake may yield more in China than it has in the U.S. and Canada, where it has made $54 million since its mid-February release.” A large portion of this comes from the cinemas showing it in 3D (the only country in the world to show it this way) and on large format screen – though crucially not Imax screens but ones from China Film Giant Screen (CFGS).


In order to understand the challenge that CFGS poses to Imax it is important to know a bit about the history of LF film and cinema. The format was effectively invented by Canada’s Imax and showcased at the 1970 Osaka Expo. Because of the inherent limitations of 70mm films, feature films were not practical, which is why it tended to focus on documentaries about Africa or Space Station for school classes and museum visitors. Imax’s only real competitor during this time was Iwerks Entertainment, though the latter was mainly focusing on specialty venues and virtual reality theatres.

In 2001 Imax was nearly wiped out by the spate of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filings from US cinema chains that saw long-term deals with the Canadian firm cancelled. Imax slowly re-built itself with a focus on feature films and courting Hollywood for first-run releases converted for the LF screen using the in-house DMR process.

Imax struck gold with Polar Express in 3D and soon started focusing more on multiplexes while rolling out new digital projection technology that did away with the 70mm limitations. Because many cinema chains objected to Imax’s terms, they created own-brand LF screens, with names such as Cinemark’s XD, Regal’s RPX, AMC’s ETX, Carmike Cinemas’ BigD and VueXtreme. 3D vendor RealD also tried creating a unifying brand with the Luxe. However, none have created the same inelastic demand at a premium pricing point that Imax achieved. Then along came CFGS.


CFGS is challenging Imax on two fronts with the RoboCop release. The first is the 2D-to-3D conversion, which was undertaken in-house by Cubic Pictures for a China-only 3D release.

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Will China Spoil the Party for IMAX in 2014?


Who doesn’t wish that they had bought IMAX stocks in 2001? Back then the once-great large format film company had been reduced to a penny stock on the back of US cinemas filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to get out of expenses leases and also costly contracts with IMAX. Digital was just over the horizon and even the vaunted Digital Media Remastering (DMR) up-converting technology had yet to make a dent and give it access to first-run films ( re-release of “Apollo 13″ was the first DMR title).

Yesterday the shares jumped to over $27 on the NYS ( C$30 on TSE) on the back of one of the companies best quarters ever. It might not quite have reached the heady heights of the late 1990s, but it is still a good time cash in for anyone who bought cheap. The question now is, can the good times last?

IMAX’s revenue increased from $77.4m to $105m, while profit more than doubled to $27.8m for the last quarter of 2013, compared with a profit of $12.8m a year earlier.  Analyst firm Piper Jaffray rightly described it as a “blockbuster” fourth-quarter results. The revenue was primarily driven by three titles: “Gravity”, “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” and “Stalingrad”, the latter of which did well in Russia and Europe ahead of its US release in February. IMAX also got good at being brutal in 2013, by yanking under-performing titles like “After Earth”, “The Lone Ranger” and “Ender’s Game” off their screens after just one week.

It is revenue from films that forms the largest component of IMAX’s earnings these days. As noted by Variety:

Imax said it earned $244 million worldwide during the period, its highest global box office quarter. It earned $727 million during the year.

It averaged $366,300 per screen during the fourth quarter.

“Gravity,” alone, generated around $100 million for the company. Film has earned over $700 million worldwide for Warner Bros.

Given the large-screen spectacle nature of “Gravity”, “Stalingrad” and “Hobbit” it should come as no surprise, but it is still a seizable figure. Other earnings also grew compared to (Q4 2012), but were smaller overall:

  • Sales and sales-type leases – $32.6m ($20.2m);
  • Joint revenue-sharing arrangements – $24.5m ($17m);
  • Production and DMR – $28.6m ($19.2m);

The more interesting and important figure is the number of new screens. From THR:

During the latest quarter, Imax signed contracts for 119 theater systems and installed 58, of which four were upgrades of existing venues. That brought the full-year total of installations to 112 new theater systems across 23 countries.

The most important growth has come in territories such as China, South Korea and India. As told in a separate piece for THR:

Imax is experiencing continued growth for its fast-expanding theater network in China. The giant-screen exhibitor recently expanded its contract with China’s largest theatrical chain, Wanda Cinema Line Corp., so don’t expect more blockbuster deals anytime soon.

“I don’t think you’re going to see another 120-theater deal like we had with Wanda. That’s not going to happen,” Imax CEO Richard Gelfond told analysts Thursday after the release of his company’s fourth-quarter results.

IMAX is thus keen to play down expectations that the good news will roll for ever. The question is whether there are major challenges ahead. Gelfond was upfront about the problems faced in China. Although the previous quota increase benefitted IMAX, the expected additional increase has not happened.

It is also likely that not all IMAX titles will pass the Chinese censors in 2014 and the problems of getting the right type of Chinese blockbusters onto the largest of screens still remains. While IMAX has had an easier time getting Russian epics like “Stalingrad” or Bollywood blockbusters such as “Dhoom 3″ released around the world, getting Chinese films onto Chinese IMAX screens represents the greatest potential and pitfall for IMAX. But that’s not all.

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RealD Gets Bigger In Russia With Two New Deals

RealD In Russia

With more than 23,000 movie screens using its 3D cinema technology in 74 countries around the globe, there is little debate over RealD’s market penetration. Yet it seems there are still territories where the company can grow its market share, especially in China and Russia.

That said, Russian exhibitors gave RealD a lot to crow about last week. The company announced that Cinema Park, which operates 281 screens across 18 cities in Russia, will install RealD 3D technology on 200 screens. Though RealD has already been placed in some of the circuit’s auditoriums, it will take five years to complete the rollout.

Cinema Park says 226 of its current screens are already 3D capable, leading one to believe the exhibitor is transitioning from whatever existing 3D systems they are using to RealD.

Possibly more important to RealD is that Cinema Park plans on installing the company’s premium large format (PLF) offering in their Grand Canyon theatre in St. Petersburg. As we explained back in June, the new program has been dubbed “Luxe: A RealD Experience”. Here is how the company describes what it refers to as an initiative:

“LUXE: A RealD Experience” is the Premium Large Format (PLF) initiative introduced by RealD at CineEurope 2013 with the aim of unifying the exhibition community under a single brand with a goal of becoming synonymous with the ultimate out of home entertainment experience. Minimum standards will assure all “LUXE: A RealD Experience” auditoriums feature massive screens, ultra bright 2D and 3D, enveloping audio and luxury seating for a premium movie-going experience. “LUXE: A RealD Experience” auditoriums will provide full flexibility with content, allowing exhibitors to show any movie at any time for optimized profitability.

This seems like less of a product and more of a quality assurance certification program not unlike what THX has offered in the past. RealD details the program’s requirements as follows:

All “LUXE: A RealD Experience” auditoriums will meet minimum technology specifications to assure a premium cinema experience, such as: usage of RealD 3D, the industry’s brightest 3D projection technology; wall-to-wall / floor-to-ceiling screens of at least 16 meters in width; 3D sound; auditorium rakes to optimize patron’s views and more.

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Time Lapse Video Documents Imax Renovation of TCL Chinese Theatre

YouTube Preview Image

Earlier this year one of the most sacred cinema palaces in the world was closed for renovation. Each year an endless stream of tourists visit the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, attracted by the dozens of celebrity footprints lodged in the cement of its forecourt along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Thanks to hundreds of movie premieres and footprint ceremonies dating back to 1927, the theatre may be one of the most recognized cinemas in all the world.

Now the historic cultural landmark will have one more feature to boast about when it reopens later this month as the world’s largest Imax theatre.

Back in 2011 Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. sold the former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to movie producers Donald Kushner and Elie Samaha. The duo promptly sold off the theatre’s naming rights for USD $5 million to TCL, a Chinese television manufacturer. Thus, one of Hollywood’s biggest tourist attractions is now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre.

The new owners closed the architectural landmark in early May so that it could be transformed into an Imax venue. This required doing away with the theatres traditional sloped floor to make way for new stadium seating. Once complete, the TCL Chinese Theatre will be 94 feet wide and seat 986 patrons, the highest seating capacity of any Imax screen.

The entire renovation was captured in a time lapse video (embedded above) which Imax posted on its YouTube channel this past Saturday.

Can RealD Rival IMAX In The Premium Large Format (PLF) Market?

With Cinema Europe currently underway in Barcelona, two trends for premium cinema experiences that pull in opposite direction are hot topics for exhibitors gathering in Spain. The first is towards smaller, intimate venues that typically serve fine food and wine, as exemplified by The Electric in London or the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. But it is the super-sizing of cinemas in a bid to compete with IMAX and its ability to charge premium ticket prices that is attracting the most attention right now. And RealD wants to be the centre of that action.

With cinema admissions in most of Europe static or even down and 3D seeing its lowest admission figures yet in the US this week, the hunt is on for how to squeeze more out of the people that still go to the cinema. This is where the success of IMAX comes into play, with exhibitors either partnering the large format (LF) player or launching their own premium experience auditoriums, to be able to charge a premium above that of 3D. The track record of exhibitors that have launched their own IMAX-like screens has been mixed, with social media in particular abuzz with patrons venting their unhappiness about large screen up-charges. This blog called AMC’s ETX ‘an Excuse To charge Extra’ and is no less kind about Regal’s RPX.

With Digital 3D being a key part of the PLF experience, RealD has spotten and opportunity to try to create a branding on behalf of exhibitors. From their press release:

At a special presentation to European cinema exhibitors at CineEurope, RealD Inc. (NYSE: RLD) today introduced “LUXE: A RealD Experience,” a premium large format (PLF) initiative aimed at unifying the exhibition community under a single brand with a goal of becoming synonymous with the ultimate out of home entertainment experience. Minimum standards will assure all “LUXE: A RealD Experience” auditoriums feature massive screens, ultra bright 2D and 3D, enveloping audio and luxury seating for a premium movie-going experience. “LUXE: A RealD Experience” auditoriums will provide full flexibility with content, allowing exhibitors to show any movie at any time for optimized profitability.

The code words are clearly audible dog whistles for cinema owners. The first sentence effectively says, “you have largely failed with your efforts of creating in-house PLF brands that can take on IMAX.” The second sentence says, “too many of the PLF auditoriums have been poor IMAX-lite causing consumer backlash.” The third sentence is the most critical, because it tells cinemas not to tie themselves in with IMAX’s restrictive licence terms – “you will have to pay a licence fee to RealD, but it will be less than what you would pay IMAX and we also won’t tell you which films to play and for how long.” Not surprisingly the effort has won the backing of the studios, who are keen on premium ticket pricing, but not on IMAX dominating the market. [NB: The first point was made even more strongly in the ScreenDaily interview, where Mayson is quoted as saying, “There are more than 50 PLF brands worldwide. We’re trying to unify those brands on the grounds that it’s easier to create awareness around one experience.”]

Bob Mayson is quoted in the Hollywood Reporter on the technical specifics:

“LUXE comes in response to our exhibitor customers, who are seeing increasing demand for premium cinema offerings but really want a single identifiable brand that will be a guarantee of quality to their customers,“ Robert Mayson, Managing Director of RealD Europe told The Hollywood Reporter. According to Mayson, the technical standards, which include wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling screens of at least 16 meters (52.5 feet) in width; 3D sound; auditorium rakes and a screen brightness for 3D projections about twice the current norm, means LUXE will be an elite standard. “We are talking about the top five percent of cinemas, there will be many theaters that won’t have the capacity or the physical dimensions to qualify,” he said.

Note in particular the mention of ’3D audio’. RealD is careful not to pick a winner in the fight between Dolby’s Atmos and Barco’s Auro and would most likely prefer to see an open standard, as called for by NATO and UNIC [pdf]. With Regal recently having announced that it is installing Dolby’s Artmos in its RPX screens, 3D audio will together with a big screen and bright projection be a cornerstone of the PLF experience. Though for exhibitors not willing to install two projectors, whether Sony or DLP, the equation will not truly be completed until the arrival of laser projection.

The next thing to note is the territories where this system will launch. THR identifies this as, “RealD plans to roll out the new LUXE initiative in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa. Europe in particular has seen strong growth in the premium segment of the cinema market.” Screen meanwhile lists, “Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Bulgaria, Romania and the Balkans.” The thing to note is that it is the emerging markets that are of particular focus, which is why we get a quote from “Paul Heth, CEO of Karo Film, a leading cinema chain in Russia.” These are the markets that have not attempted a PLF brand on their own and that will build new multiplexes, so that the system does not have to be retrofitted into existing multiplexes. RealD is thus unlikely to try to persuade existing cinema clients in North America and Western Europe to ditch their own in-house PLF brand in favour of LUXE.

While IMAX is built on great technology and offers (depending on the site) a terrific viewer experience, there is nothing about it that cannot be replicated with todays digital technology – unlike the analogue 70mm systems of olden days. What sets it apart from in-house PLF screens is thus one thing: branding. IMAX has done a terrific job of re-positioning its brand from 60 minute documentaries for school groups that put bums on seats Monday through Friday 9am until 5pm, to one where people book tickets weeks in advance to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster on the opening weekend. This despite the backlash of the ‘IMAX-lite’ entry into the multiplex market a few years back. Vue Xtreme and Regal RPX have simply not been able to match the branding power of IMAX. RealD too has some cleaver technology, including launching the brighter screen this week, but there is nothing inherently unique about circular polarization 3D at the heart of their solution. The truth is that RealD too is about branding. Just like IMAX it charges a licence fee. Just not as much or with terms perceived as equally restrictive. If RealD succeeds with LUXE – and it stands a better chance than in-house PLFs – it is because the company understands IMAX and what makes it a success all too well.

RealD Gets Bigger With XLW and Regal

RealDRealD is showing signs that they have no intention of slowing the pace of their growth in the cinema marketplace. Already the leading worldwide provider of 3D technology for motion picture exhibitors, the company made two big announcements over the past week which will help push its share of the market even higher.

The first bit of news was about the XLW Cinema System, a new RealD product capable of projecting a 3D image on a screen up to 82 feet (25 meters) wide. Given that the XL Cinema System could already throw an image onto an 80 foot (24.4 meters) the big news here seems to be that the 1.0 throw ratio of the XLW.

Most throw ratios fall between 1.8 and 2.0, meaning if the screen is 40 feet wide, the distance between the projector and the screen has to be 72 to 80 feet. With a throw ratio of 1.0 and a maximum screen width of 82 feet, the XLW can project large images in a smaller space. It’s not hard to see why RealD developed the technology. With the popularity (not to mention increased revenue) of Imax screenings, many major theatre chains have begun to retrofit traditional auditoriums into branded “large screen” venues. Regal has RPX, AMC has ETX and Marcus Theatres has UltraScreen, to name just a few.

The XLW system will allow exhibitors to install much wider screens in stadium seat auditoriums which generally have shorter throws.

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