ScreenX Wants To Create A More Immersive Moviegoing Experience, But Is The Technology Ready?

03.09.18 6 months ago

Marvel

Black Panther certainly doesn’t need any help at the box office. The Marvel Studios release has been setting and breaking records since before it even opened, starting with new highs for Fandango ticket pre-orders. It’s climbed the charts of the all-time highest-grossing Marvel films, superhero films and films in general, and with three weeks at the top of the domestic box-office charts, it shows no signs of stopping those ascents. Clearly, the movie has struck a chord with audiences, who are seeing it for its rich story, complex characters, diverse representation, gorgeous special effects and exciting action.

One record that’s not reported among those various milestones is how much money Black Panther has made in ScreenX, a relatively new exhibition format in which it’s been playing in 100-plus locations in eight countries. Developed by South Korean theater chain CJ CGV, ScreenX is the latest in the grand tradition of theatrical presentation gimmicks designed to get audiences out of their houses and into the movie theater. And like most of the current add-ons to the theatrical experience, from 3D to seat-rumbling D-Box to 4D technologies that bombard audiences with smells and sprays, ScreenX is a high-tech spin on an old format, expanding the image to a 270-degree wraparound that recalls the days of the highly touted (but short-lived) Cinerama process.

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Launched in 1952 — when, like now, movie theaters feared competition from other forms of entertainment — Cinerama produced a 146-degree panoramic image via three overlapping projectors on a large curved screen. Only a handful of movies were shot in the true Cinerama process, created with three separate images, most of which were documentaries like the initial 1952 proof-of-concept film This Is Cinerama. In 1962, two narrative films — The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won — were produced in Cinerama, but in its later days the complicated process was abandoned in favor of using Cinerama as a brand name for 70mm widescreen presentations (much like IMAX is used as a brand name for large-scale, but not truly IMAX-size, theaters today).

Like Cinerama, ScreenX uses three separate images, although they aren’t shown on a single oversized screen. Instead, the main image (that is, what most moviegoers see as the entire movie) is projected on a screen at the front of the theater as normal, while two additional images are projected on either side of the screen, creating what is meant to be an immersive cinema experience. Although ScreenX is prevalent abroad (especially in South Korea, where it was created), only three theaters in the U.S. feature the technology: two in Southern California, and one in Las Vegas. Black Panther is just the third Hollywood movie (following Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Kingsman: The Golden Circle) to be shown in ScreenX in the U.S.

I headed to the AMC Town Square in Las Vegas on a Sunday afternoon to catch Black Panther in ScreenX, after having seen the movie once in the traditional format. Tickets for ScreenX shows carry a typical upcharge (the face value of mine was $13.99), and there were around 20 people in the theater for this particular showing. One thing I hadn’t realized before settling into my seat is that, at least at Town Square, the side images are projected directly onto the theater walls, and I briefly worried that I was in the wrong auditorium when I didn’t see additional screens set up.

But I did spot the six projectors near the ceiling on each side of the auditorium, and as soon as the movie started (with the animated prologue detailing the history of Wakanda), the images filled the space, immersing the audience in the mystical past. Or trying to, at least. Because there aren’t any screens on the sides, the sparkling star fields were broken up by glowing green exit signs, and the supplemental images were always a bit distorted and less distinct than the main picture.

Being surrounded by stars was a good way to get drawn into the story from the beginning, though, and it was a bit disappointing when the side images disappeared after the brief prologue ended. All told, the ScreenX experience constituted maybe 25 minutes of the 134-minute movie, broken up into short bursts of about two to three minutes throughout the running time. Although add-ons like ScreenX are often associated with spectacle, the enhancements were just as likely to show up during quiet moments as they were to be deployed during action sequences.

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