Size does matter
Despite 43 years' experience developing movie theatres worldwide, UA general manager Bob Vallone seemed nervous when the press pack arrived last week to inspect his latest cinema. It turned out he was worried guests would lean against the five-storey wall at one end of the auditorium. Despatched to head off any such incident, publicists warned the visitors that the wall 'is thin and ... expensive'.
Vallone's anxiety isn't entirely unwarranted: the silver, 13.6-metre by 25-metre wall is a specially made screen and accounts for a significant portion of the HK$16 million cost of the Imax theatre. Part of UA's HK$44 million multiplex at the MegaBox mall in Kowloon Bay, it promises 'perfectly coloured, crystal-clear and almost life-like' moving images, he says.
The Imax system allows viewers to be 'part of the film' thanks to larger projection - the 15/70mm negatives are 10 times bigger than the 35mm reels in conventional cinemas - and a screen slightly tilted towards the audience.
Such a mega-screen experience favours today's blockbusters, which bank heavily on special effects. Imax use was largely confined to theme parks and specialist auditoriums after it was invented by Canadian filmmakers in 1967. It wasn't until 2003, when the Imax version of The Matrix Revolutions became a hit, followed by that of the animated film The Polar Express (2004), that the application crossed into mainstream cinema. It's not surprising that the first film to be screened at the new Imax cinema when it officially opens next week
is a showcase of special-effects wizardry - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Although the most costly, the Imax is the latest in a list of specialist screens that have opened recently
in a drive to revive the cinema business, which has seen takings fall sharply in the past few years.
The Drive-in opened in January in a vacant lot off Austin Road West and gives Hongkongers a taste of
a viewing experience that was common in the US and Australia before the age of the multiplex. 'As cinema operators, we try to get that little bit extra and make it a little more special, so as to encourage our patrons to return,' says Billy Dock, The Drive-in's general manager.
'It helps if you can get that little bit extra since people now can pick up the DVD shortly after a film's release,' he says.
Then there are the 4D Extreme Screens that the Intercontinental Group introduced at Chek Lap Kok's Skyplaza in April. Also featuring
a five-storey screen and 3D capability, the cinema can add a 'fourth dimension' to movie-watching - by simulating the rain, fog and fauna on screen using sprinklers, smoke machines and odour dispensers.
In a special-effects version of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, for example, cinema-goers are treated to a small shower of water droplets when the superheroes brave waves.
'Audiences today love to check out new things and they know what they want,' says Grace Wong, group general manager of Intercontinental Films that runs 4D Extreme Screens together with the Airport Authority and Canadian company SimEx-Iworks.
'There are so many innovations these days and moviegoers expect to find new trends to explore. Apart from giving consumers more choices, technology is constantly evolving and we can't keep hanging on to the old.'
Intercontinental's most ambitious project, however, is a 12-house cinema complex at Union Square, the residential-commercial development above Kowloon Station. Wong declines to reveal details of the multiplex which is scheduled to open in October, but says it will screen films of different formats, and both mainstream and art-house fare. Refreshment and merchandise facilities have been incorporated to create an entertainment centre.
UA outlets at MegaBox provide a peek into the future of cinema complexes. Apart from the obvious attraction of the Imax, there's a 40-seat Cinelux house, in which patrons can order food and beverages - a service similar to its Director's Clubs at Cityplaza and Windsor.
But theatre operators still struggle to reinvent themselves as entertainment powerhouses; landlords are now reluctant to offer space for cinemas when retailers could bring in more rent and people. Tickets for Imax films are almost double that for conventional screenings: The Imax-enhanced Harry Potter film, for example, will cost HK$115 compared to HK$55
for the 35mm version.
Nevertheless, Vallone is confident the venture will succeed, attracting people who see the cinematic experience as spectacle. 'The sightlines, the comfort, the bass speakers that allow you to feel the tanks rumbling [on screen] -
the whole experience will attract a whole group of people to choose Imax first,' he says. 'Like the [CGI-heavy] movie 300; if you are a true cinema-goer and want to see it even if your friends don't go with you, you're going to go to the Imax.'
Seating just 260 people, the cinema will have limited impact - at least at first. But its arrival may signal a turning point for cinema operators whose offerings have been sidelined by DVDs. It's the revival of cinema-going as an activity that can't be duplicated at home - a shift underlined by the success of hi-tech screening systems such as Imax.
'We feel that the future of the industry is to go back to cinema-going as an event rather than just watching a movie,' says Vallone. 'It's not unlike when I was a kid, when cinemas had big screens. They might not have been that big but they were far bigger than the average today - almost all were like the one at Ocean [in Tsim Sha Tsui]. But over the years they kept getting smaller.'
With the hi-tech systems they're going back to the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and making the screens bigger 'but of course with a sound system that wasn't available then', he says.
What's more, a box office boost isn't restricted to specialist cinemas; the buzz they create often spills over to the associated screens. 'The complexes are bringing more people into traditional 35mm-houses,' says Vallone. 'So, it's not just the Imax performing well; the cluster around Imax usually have 30 per cent more business than those without one.' The potential benefits are now registering with mall operators and retailers: at MegaBox, UA has already collaborated with the owner and tenants on promotion schemes.