Goodbye IMAX South Africa

It's a sad week for South African movie lovers. This Wednesday, 30 June, IMAX is shutting down in the country, for good.

At one stage, there were at least 4 cinemas offering local audiences the giant format, multi-storey visuals IMAX theatres are famous for worldwide. For the past few years though only 2 IMAX cinemas have operated in South Africa: the Gateway IMAX theatre in Durban, and Menlyn Park IMAX in Pretoria. Johannesburg's Hyde Park IMAX closed in 2003 and Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront IMAX (where I had my first ever IMAX experience) shut down in 2004.

Now, Gateway and Menlyn Park IMAX are also going the way of the dodo. Although there had been whisperings of closure for a few months now, it was difficult finding official information on the matter. As usual, the South African IMAX website is useless. Finally though, this press release appeared on the Gateway shopping mall website, and it explains matters simply enough:

IMAX Theatres to Close at the end of June 2010

Old Mutual Investment Group Property Investments (OMIGPI), in its capacity as managing agent on behalf of OMLACSA (Old Mutual Life Assurance Company of South Africa) has an agreement with Imax Corporation to operate two Imax Theatres in South Africa, an agreement that terminates on 30 June 2010.

As part of a drive to focus on core activities, OMIGPI has decided not to continue directly operating the Imax Theatres past the expiry date of the agreement.

Although the Imax movie format has provided a niche offering at Menlyn Park and Gateway Theatre of Shopping over the years; the existing equipment is now outdated in relation to the latest specification Imax Theatres found around the world. Imax attendance levels and take up by customers in the market are not sufficient to sustain ongoing business and justify additional capital costs that are necessary to convert to updated equipment and operating costs required. Issued by: Old Mutual Investment Group Property Investments

Personally I'm upset by the news of IMAX's closure, although not completely surprised. My last 3 experiences at the Durban IMAX - which took place over the last 12 months - were mediocre, and a sure sign that things were breaking down.

The theatre staff, while friendly enough, were incredibly slow. When a popular film like Spider-Man 3 or Avatar was released, the theatre employees just couldn't cope with crowds. The concessions stand queues were ridiculous, and the start time of films could be delayed by up to 30 minutes, leaving patrons to stand crammed together in the entrance hall. Then there was the fact that new releases no longer filled the entire 8-storey high screen as they had previously. Now projected on about 85% of the screen, the moving images were surrounded by distracting blankness (particularly above the film). And if that wasn't enough, I experienced at least 1 projector shutdown in the middle of an IMAX movie.

Then there was Gateway IMAX's obvious attempt to produce much-needed revenue through corporate advertising. Before film screenings, laughably bad, low resolution PowerPoint presentations were projected on the screen. Comic Sans and Copperplate Gothic fonts; cheesy animated slide transitions; pixelated images - they were all there. Frankly the "advertising" reeked of non-professionalism, and frankly non-professionalism can be viewed as one of IMAX South Africa's major problems.

IMAX South Africa was always very backwards in the face of competition. And money was never spent to make IMAX competitive locally. For example, online booking was never even enabled on their website, while the feature is standard on the sites of local cinema chains Nu Metro and Ster Kinekor.

All was good and well while IMAX was the "novelty" movie format of choice. IMAX SA could afford to rest on its impressive technological credentials. However, 3D came along, and, as the cool new kid on the block, lured away movie audiences who might otherwise have spent extra for the unique IMAX experience. For the record, IMAX Gateway charged R50 per adult, while 3D movies at Ster Kinekor cinemas in the same shopping mall cost R65 a person. A normal full-price movie ticket at Gateway Ster Kinekor is now R50. So, IMAX South Africa wasn't ridiculously expensive for cinema goers when compared to other options.

Of course, as Old Mutual's press release admits, IMAX South Africa was ultimately sunk by their increasingly "outdated" equipment. Unwilling and/or unable to upgrade to IMAX 3D, which is becoming increasingly popular overseas, local IMAX just didn't have the gimmicky edge to draw affluent South Africans back into their theatres.

And that's it, really.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big IMAX supporter, so I'm disappointed to see the end of the format in South Africa. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I prefer IMAX movies to 3D. I even chose to watch Avatar on the giant screen before viewing it in multiple dimensions. I believe that IMAX more naturally, and successfully, enhances a film experience , by exposing viewers to details that you would otherwise miss on a conventional cinema screen. That was certainly the case with Zack Synder's 300 and Watchmen, which were incredibly striking, immersive experiences at IMAX. Then you get those rare Hollywood filmmakers who actually shoot with IMAX cameras, grasping the full potential of the format - and you get unforgettable moments like the breathtaking Hong Kong skyline scenes in The Dark Knight.

I'll miss that.

I guess in South Africa IMAX was an unfortunate case of go big AND go home.


Terrance said…
I'm real sad to hear that IMAX is going to be non-existent in SA from the end of this month. I've only ever managed to go once two years back and was lucky enough to see Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda at Menlyn Park. If the cinema in Cape town had still been open I would definitely have gone more often is all I can say.
Dante said…
I have only ever say 300 on Imax. It was not the be all, end all for me though. But this is a step backwards as far as sa movie technology go. Which is sad. :(
Lydon said…
It's such a pity they're closing down, but to be honest I'm really not surprised.

For one, they simply didn't make enough noise about their products. Where was the advertising? They should have embarked on a marketing campaign to increase awareness as to the existence of their product.

I can only ever remember going once, and that was at the V&A as a kid to watch some whale movie on a class outing. Even if the V&A were still open today, however, it would be too far off the beaten track to warrant going to. I can imagine it being a big success in malls such as Canal Walk in Cape Town if they were to provide a decent level of service and bother upgrading to the latest technology.

Oh win some, you lose some. Hopefully sometime in the future someone will possess the foresight to realise that a little bit of care goes a long way, and hopefully that'll result in an eventual relaunch.
Gareth said…
I dunno, I haven't been impressed with IMAX, mostly it's a waste of money.

Particularly with action movies, I find when sitting in the middle row down that I simply can't see the action properly, it becomes a blur. Happened to me both with Transformers 2 and Prince of Persia. The eye's focal point is in the middle of your vision, with an action shot at that scale, rolling around the screen, my eye struggles to focus.

If I sit further back it's better, but then what's the point? You go far enough back and it fills about as much of your vision as a normal cinema screen.

I've enjoyed some IMAX spectacles, sure, like the Dark Knight, but these days I actually prefer normal cinemas, just cause I know I won't have the action shots ruined like that.
Brandon said…
That's really too bad, especially considering the IMAX tickets were the same price as the regular tickets right across the shopping center. To me it's a case of having to spend some money to make some money, which I guess these VCs weren't willing to. Hopefully some other company will fill the void of SA large-format projection.
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Lydon, you're completely right about the lack of advertising. Once 3D became a lot more popular IMAX lost out. They really weren't selling themselves as an alternative.

Gareth, just as with 3D, the films that look best at IMAX are those that have been specially filmed for the format (The Dark Knight) - or are filmed in a non-frenetic, "smooth" style that works on the giant screen (300, Watchmen, Avatar). Optimal seating in the cinema is also required. In all honesty, the most impressive things screened at IMAX are actual 45 minute IMAX films but they seemed to become less frequent as time went by.

Brandon, I hope once the economic climate improves that some investors will bring IMAX back to SA, this time updating the systems so that IMAX 3D is possible.
Ivan said…
maybe we lucky and Virgin, or even ster kinekor picks it up again

i loved it
James Preston said…
I only JUST found out Imax has closed in Gateway, Durban! And I live there! I am horrified! It was also such a cool option to have when running through a list of things to do when wondering how to spend time. And a real nice feature to Durban's repotoire. Really, really sad, and I think Old Mutual should jack up and do something about it instead of worrying about their own revenues. Its about the feature, the novelty (Wavehouse and Rockclimbing wall), not always the money! Afterall, that's what makes Gateway what it is! Ah, it's all about the money I guess. Sad, sad, sad.
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for commenting, James.

Yeah, I'm still bitter about IMAX now being non-existent in Durban, and the whole country. I really enjoyed the medium and now we're missing out on watching dozens of high profile releases in the format.

Then again, Old Mutual and the cinemas themselves let themselves go. They never jacked themselves up to offer their premium service properly.
Ofentse Mwase said…
Be sad no more, The Big Dipper is BACK!!!

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