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To IMAX and beyond. . . .

Large-format films take moviegoers around the world in a big way

SHARE To IMAX and beyond. . . .

It's been a full summer for Utahns. Many of us didn't have time for long vacations, yet we managed to explore Alaska, trek into the Grand Canyon's depths, whale-watch in the Pacific, climb into the pyramids of Egypt and slip through the Narrows of Zion Canyon.

And we did it all in less than four hours.

This is what family entertainment has come to — whirlwind, action-dense "motion-picture experiences," commonly known as IMAX films. "IMAX" has become the "Kleenex" brand-name term for a handful of large-format film companies with names such as MegaSystems and I-Werks. They make epics that hurtle above us on six-story-high screens, with stereo sound that whooshes around our bodies like Class IV river rapids. For about $7 we can thrill to the great wonders of the world — all without long hours in the car or danger of sunburn. It's no wonder large-format cinema is thriving — in Utah and around the globe.

The 6-year-old Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theatre in Springdale saw its millionth customer this spring, and that was even before tourist season began. Some 150,000 patrons have seen films like "Whales" and "Michael Jordan to the Max" on Sandy's SuperScreen at Jordan Commons. And Utah's third large-format venue, the North American Museum of Ancient Life (a k a the Dinosaur Museum) at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, opened in July with "Alaska: Spirit of the Wild" — and in its first eight weeks has brought in 54,621 patrons.

Twenty years ago, VCRs pulled families away from the big screens, especially drive-ins. Now we're turning back to mammoth movies. Some 325 IMAX-style theaters operate in 27 countries, and dozens more are in various stages of construction. So far they have attracted 75 million filmgoers, according to Ed Capelle, president of Destination Cinema in Ogden. In 1984 Destination released its first production, "Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets," a 40-minute eyeful that has since screened from here to Paris, France.

Destination Cinema has produced six films since "Grand Canyon," including "Yellowstone," "Hidden Hawaii" and "Mysteries of Egypt," which was among the most successful large-format movies ever produced. The film, starring Omar Sharif, dramatizes Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb.

"It's a true-life Indiana Jones story," said "Mysteries" director Bruce Neibaur, who lives in Draper when he's not off making movies.

"Mysteries" had successful runs at both Zion Canyon and the Sandy SuperScreen, and it's slated for a November opening at the Thanksgiving Point museum. Worldwide, the film has grossed $67 million, and in a ranking of all movies released in North America during 1999, Variety magazine placed it in the top 100. "Mysteries" made it clear that large-format features are commanding an increasing share of Americans' entertainment dollars.

With that new prominence comes pressure to make large-format movies more marketable. "There's a strong push," Capelle said, "to move our industry toward more commercial content." In other words, investors want fewer educational films and more grand dramas. And they want large-format to appeal to the 12-24 age range that turns out for traditional movies. IMAX-type films have been geared toward the 35-55 age bracket, Capelle said. They've also been made for national parks and science museums, where the movie is meant to enhance the institution's mission.

But a whole other species of IMAX theater is multiplying around the world. This new breed, exemplified by the SuperScreen in Sandy, is about entertainment first. The big screen is the destination, and no museum exhibits nor hiking trails lie around it. Many more of these extra-large theaters are on the near horizon, with Cinemark planning to build one at Crossroads Plaza next year.

"We're hoping for an August or September 2001 opening," said Crossroads general manager Dave Nielson. Construction of the IMAX-certified screen was postponed more than a year because of the proliferation of other multiplexes around the valley. "We wanted to let the dust settle," Nielson said.

An IMAX-size venue costs anywhere from $3 million for one screen in a multiplex to $20 million for a stand-alone domed palace. Such a screen might be part of the proposed Salt Lake aquarium center, if plans for that project pan out.

These new theaters, of course, demand new movies, and Capelle said about a dozen large-format features are produced each year. His Destination studio just began shooting "Lewis & Clark," with Neibaur directing.

"We're trying to show a sweeping view of the struggle the Corps of Discovery went through" in their 18-month expedition from St. Louis to Astoria, Ore., Neibaur said. Day One of filming the larger-than-life "Lewis & Clark" brought his crew to Heber City earlier this month, where they staged a scene of a Corps member being chased by a grizzly bear. Next they went to Cannon Beach, Ore., to portray the Corps' first sight of the Pacific, and then they headed north to Idaho, where the Corps began paddling up the Columbia River.

"We want to make this film compelling for young people," said Neibaur. "That's a challenge in an MTV world." His hope is that the movie will show how "the need to know what's out there, the allure of the unknown, has helped create the America that we enjoy."

"Lewis & Clark" will come to theaters in early 2002. In the meantime, the Zion Canyon Giant Screen will continue with "Treasure of the Gods," and the Sandy SuperScreen will open "Olympic Glory" Sept. 8. The film about the Nagano Winter Games will replace "Michael Jordan to the Max," while the SuperScreen will continue showing "Whales" and "Wildfire." At the Ancient Life Museum in Lehi, "Alaska" will stay through September, to be exchanged Oct. 1 for "Ring of Fire," a movie about volcanoes and seismic phenomena such as the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco.

Kathy LaFave, manager of the Zion Canyon theater, said "Treasure" takes Zion National Park visitors "to parts of the canyon that they'd have to take a lot of time to hike into . . . most don't take time to explore the whole park."

That seems to be what large-format film does best — provide busy people with bigger views. Destination Cinema operates the theater at the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. "The average stay at the South Rim is about 20 minutes," Capelle said. "The majority of people don't hike or raft the canyon." Why would they, when there's a movie that does it for them?

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com