Is Magi Pod the new mini Imax?

By Patrick von Sychowski | July 18, 2016 12:34 am PDT
Magi Pod cinema

Could a new boutique immersive cinema format be the most significant challenge yet to the hegemony of Imax? The Magi Pod concept developed by visual effects guru Doug Trumbull seats just 60 to 70 people, but uses all the latest cinema technology developments to create an experience to rival premium large format (PLF) offerings at a significantly lower cost. Where other rivals like RealD Luxe, Dolby Cinema and China Film Giant Screen have so far failed to dent Imax’s global domination, Magi Pod has a chance to do so by creating an entirely new market: premium small format (PSF) cinema.

Magi  Pod was born out of Trumbull’s Magi process “UFOTog” proof-of-concept short film that was screened at IBC two years ago. This was shot and displayed in 120 frames per second (fps) using 6P Christie laser projection for a hyper-realistic look. Magi Pod uses a Christie Mirage 4K25 laser projector that puts out 14 ft Lamberts, 32 channel Christie Vive audio speakers and a partial spherical curved Torus screen from Stewart Filmscreen. The seating is manufactured by Irwin, with capacity for up to 70 people.

In a detailed overview by Adrian Pennington in Screen Daily, the Magi Pod would have 20ft (eight meters) of space above each spectator, compared to 50ft (20 meters) for a typical PLF auditorium. The space would also offer a 100 degree field-of-vision of slightly over 1,200 soft (110 sqm). Magi Pod thus claims to be cheaper and more efficient use of real estate in the cinema than PLFs. Trumbull is quoted as saying that:

Our prototype is unlike any movie theatre ever seen. It is not a rectangular box and it doesn’t have a flat screen. It’s more like a holodeck, or ovoid, which envelopes the audience. This gives a giant screen experience in a relatively small space and on a modest budget.

Magi Pod is said to cost one-sixth on a per-seat basis compared to regular PLFs, while also less than half of the cost of of the build of a conventional auditorium. Retrofitting a regular mid-size multiplex screen is said to just take a week, with the pre-fabricated construction shipped in its entirety to the location. The system would have need the DCI specifications and SMPTE standards to be changed to accommodate its 3D 4K 120fps format.

The Magi Pod is positioning itself as the perfect venue to show Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” that was shot 120fps 3D 4K. Mr Lee is one of several directors and studio executives that have visited Trumbull’s prototype installation to evaluate its potential. Yet the film release is likely to come too soon for the Magi Pod to be deployed in a significant number of sites and there are greater hopes for the “Avatar” sequels to be screened that way.

If the Magi Pod concept is a success it could pose a serious challenge not just to Imax, but also to other PLF formats such as Dolby Cinema, RealD’s Luxe, China Film Giant Screen (CFGS), EclairColor and countless own-brand PLF formats deployed by exhibitors. Yet Imax is the most vulnerable, due to the fact that it both has but also can’t launch its own rival PSF.

Imax has already weathered a storm for retrofitting regular multiplex screens in what was angrily dubbed LieMAX format, before the exhibitor switched to digital projection and focused on new markets such as China. To once again aim for smaller multiplex screen would risk causing more confusion and backlash, while it is not clear how this type of Imax screen would be branded and distinguished from regular Imax screens: Imax Nano? Iminix?

Max luxury yacht cinema

Interestingly Imax has already launched a similar format to Magi Pod, but only for ultra-wealthy individuals looking to have a home cinema unlike any other, including going so far as to enable this to be installed in luxury yachts for the 0.01%. Imax has since branched out into spinning classes, cruise ships screens and even virtual reality, so it cannot be precluded that it won’t launch a smaller multiplex version. But we will first have to see whether Imax is prepared to venture into the high frame rate (HFR) market, which it has so far resisted for films like “The Hobbit”.

Another potential competitor would by Dolby Cinema, which is similarly to Imax positioning itself as the ultimate technology for a completely immersive cinema experience, though fitting more easily (although not cheaply) into exiting multiplex infrastructures. When the format was launched at last year’s CinemaCon I sat down to interview Dolby’s Stuart Bowling and my first question was whether the concept could also work for smaller screens. He seemed surprised by the question, but said that although it could in theory work in small auditoriums, Dolby’s focus was on the larger screens in multiplexes.

It would currently not be economical to try to build a boutique-style Dolby Cinema auditorium, given the cost of the modified Christie 6P lasers, Dolby Atmos sounds, special seating and wall cover, etc. This is where Magi Pod’s claim of offering an immersive experience for smaller audiences at a significantly lower price point means that it could capture the market to itself.

Yet the greatest challenge facing Magi Pod in terms of getting buy-in from exhibitors is the same chicken-or-egg content issue that have plagued all new digital cinema formats. “Billy Lynn” is great way to demonstrate Magi Pod’s capabilities, but it won’t launch the concept on a broad scale. This is why Trumbull seems to be pinning his hopes to the next four “Avatar” films, not least given that it was the original “Avatar” that was the breakthrough film for digital stereoscopic 3D in cinemas. No wonder that Trumbull is currently courting James Cameron and Jon Landau to visit his Magi Pod prototype.

Patrick von Sychowski
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