J.J. Abrams Shot Part of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ in IMAX, So Why Aren’t Theaters Showing It That Way?
In July of 2014, the official Twitter account for Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’ production company tweeted a shot of an IMAX camera preparing to film a scene in 70mm for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was part of a planned showstopper chase sequence where Rey, Finn, and BB-8 find themselves at the controls of the Millennium Falcon as they evade a group of TIE fighters. The hashtag accompanying the tweet noted IMAX was the #bestformatever. But, if you want to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and that special IMAX sequence, in the “best format ever,” you may be out of luck. Only 18 theaters in the United States and Canada are actually projecting The Force Awakens in 70mm IMAX, less than 1% of the total theater count.
Right now, if you live in New York City and want to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 70mm IMAX, you’d have to drive two hours to Philadelphia. If you live in Chicago, you’d have to drive three hours to Indianapolis. If you live in Austin, you’d have to drive 10 hours to Branson, Missouri.
Currently only 11 states in the U.S. (not including Washington, D.C.) and one Canadian province are slated to show Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 70mm IMAX, most with only one theater per state. To give that number context, consider this: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opened in 70mm IMAX just one year ago in almost four times as many theaters.
Earlier this year The Hollywood Reporter claimed The Force Awakens was expected to open on 375 to 400 IMAX screens. An impressive number, but those ~400 theaters are Digital IMAX theaters. Because actual 70mm projectors and screens are costly to install, many theaters simply retrofitted existing theaters with a digital IMAX projector, which means you’re paying for IMAX, but watching a film on a smaller screen with a lower resolution (aka, “LieMAX”). This can be confusing (perhaps even deliberately so), but this Star Wars frame comparison gives you an idea what you see on Digital IMAX standard widescreen versus the 70mm IMAX format:
The major issue here is that many theaters who traditionally show 70mm IMAX movies, like Chicago’s Navy Pier IMAX for example, are instead showing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Digital IMAX, leading to confusion among moviegoers. Many fans thought they were buying tickets for the #bestformatever, even imploring fellow fans to make sure they were buying tickets at the right locations, only to now find out they are instead getting an inferior projection.
This is normally sage advice, except in this case it turned out to not exactly be true. Same for theaters in Chicago, Texas, Montreal, Houston, Phoenix and more, all theaters that were, one year ago, showing Interstellar in 15/70 film projection, yet won’t be doing the same for Star Wars.
So, how do three of the biggest cities in the United States not have a true IMAX theater for the biggest movie of the year, if not the decade? AMC’s Loews Lincoln Square theater in New York City has a 70mm IMAX theater, but recently removed its film projector to make way for the installation of something called “IMAX with laser,” IMAX’s “next-generation” cinema projection system that uses two side-by-side 4K projectors. That would be great (potentially even an improvement over 70mm) except the setup won’t be complete until mid-January, when Star Wars’ one-month exclusive run ends. In the meantime, the Loews Lincoln Square will use its digital projector, which means moviegoers will be watching a widescreen image that won’t fill the massive 76’ x 97’ screen.
That explains one theater, but what about the others? Going back to the Interstellar comparison, he biggest difference between that film and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is 3D. Interstellar was not presented in 3D, so IMAX theaters had no choice but to run its 70mm print. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is available in post-converted 3D, with no 3D 70mm option (except for theaters equipped with IMAX with Laser, of which there are only 6 in the U.S.). When given the choice between the two, most theaters opted for 3D over 70mm for a very simple reason: money.
At theaters where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is screening in 15/70 IMAX 2D, the average ticket cost was $15. The average ticket cost to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the digital “IMAX 3D Experience” was $20. Keep in mind, that The Force Awakens was not shot in 3D, but a portion of it was shot in 70mm. Theaters are actually charging you more money to see a movie in wrong format.
Another issue, according to sources, is that Disney didn’t plan to strike nearly enough 70mm prints comparable to the demand. 70mm film prints are much more expensive than traditional 35mm and certainly more expensive than shipping a digital print on a hard drive. We reached out to representatives at Disney and Lucasfilm who, besides saying they were looking into the matter, had no official statement at this time.
Representatives at IMAX’s corporate office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
J.J. Abrams told Variety back in 2014, “The opportunity to have an action sequence for [Star Wars: The Force Awakens] done in IMAX’s natural format was too delicious an idea to pass up. As a filmgoer, it’s something I want to see.” Sadly, it’s something you as a filmgoer may never get to see.
To make absolutely sure you’re getting exactly what want, and what you think you’ve paid for, here’s the full list of theaters showing The Force Awakens in either 70mm IMAX or IMAX with Laser.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 3D in IMAX with Laser
TCL Chinese Theatres IMAX – Hollywood
AMC Metreon 16 & IMAX – San Francisco
AMC Universal CityWalk Stadium 19 & IMAX – Universal City
Sunbrella IMAX 3D Theatre, Jordan’s Furniture Reading – Reading
Scotiabank Toronto & IMAX – Toronto
Airbus IMAX, Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center – Chantilly
Boeing IMAX, Pacific Science Center – Seattle
Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 2D on IMAX 15/70mm Film Projection
McWane Center IMAX Dome Theatre – Birmingham
IMAX, U.S. Space & Rocket Center – Huntsville
Hackworth IMAX Dome, The Tech Museum – San Jose
Museum of Discovery & Science AutoNation IMAX – Ft. Lauderdale
IMAX Dome, Museum of Science & Industry – Tampa
IMAX, Indiana State Museum - Indianapolis
Blank IMAX Dome, Science Center of Iowa – Des Moines
Branson’s IMAX, Entertainment Complex – Branson
St. Louis Science Center OMNIMAX Theatre – St. Louis
Tuttleman IMAX, The Franklin Institute– Philadelphia
Lockheed Martin IMAX, National Air & Space Museum