The movie-viewing experience in the Columbus market is about to take a major leap forward — and very quickly — with conversion of the “BigD” auditorium inside the Carmike 15 cineplex to IMAX in slightly more than a week.
Carmike Cinemas, headquartered in downtown Columbus, began installing a new curved screen, projectors, sound equipment and seats on Wednesday. The screen is 74 feet wide and 40 feet high, slightly taller than the previous one.
The plan is to open the upgraded auditorium by Dec. 13, just in time for the premiere of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the second of three films adapted from the J.R.R. Tolkien classic, “The Hobbit.”
“The screen is going to be moved forward based on IMAX specs and requirements,” Carmike Chief Operating Officer Fred Van Noy said Thursday during an interview at the Carmike 15. “At the center point, I think it will be about 8 feet forward, which doesn’t sound like much. But what it’s going to do is provide that immersive environment where the movie — the experience — is right on top of you.”
The Columbus Park Crossing theater is one of three existing movie complexes in which the company plans to install the IMAX technology, he said. The Thoroughbred 20 in the Nashville, Tenn., suburb of Franklin, and the Carmike 14 in Tyler, Texas, also will have their “BigD” auditoriums converted to the format.
Another seven IMAX screens will be part of new theater construction projects in the Carmike pipeline, Van Noy said, with the total of 10 part of a three-year agreement announced in October between the theater chain and Ontario, Canada-based IMAX Corp.
“Our commitment right now to IMAX is 10, but that’s the minimum commitment,” the executive said. “The relationship has now been built. We’ve got experience with IMAX through our recent acquisitions. We see that relationship growing and I don’t see us stopping at 10.”
Carmike inherited seven IMAX screens as part of its purchase of 16 complexes from Rave Reviews Cinemas in November 2012, and added one more last August when it bought three multiplexes from Cinemark USA. The IMAX agreement would give it 18 in all.
For Columbus movie-goers, the latest move means access to what Van Noy said is a growing portfolio of first-run Hollywood films offered by IMAX, which uses proprietary software, film cameras and other technology designed to put viewers in the middle of the action or scene, both visually and audibly.
Van Noy said IMAX technicians will be on hand over the next 10 days to make certain that every bit of the transition to the new format is completed perfectly.
“We’ll have two projectors with IMAX, laying image over image, which will enhance the light output, which is very important, especially with 3D,” he said. “So the screen’s going to be much brighter. It will be a true, 100-percent IMAX experience.”
The current BigD auditorium at Carmike 15 seats 586 people. The shift to IMAX will cut that by 16 seats or so to make certain everyone has a proper viewing angle.
The Carmike 15, however, will not be without a BigD auditorium for long, with the company planning to shift that enhanced movie-viewing experience to another auditorium that seats 380 movie-goers.
“The screen will be a little bit smaller, but the presentation will be floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, and it will be a BigD experience,” said Van Noy. “We’re moving the sound system and the (cushy rocker) seats over there. The projection’s going to be moved over there. It’s BigD, just a smaller auditorium.”
That won’t take place until January, however, with Carmike not wanting to lose an auditorium for any major length of time because of the busy Christmas movie season.
The new IMAX auditorium, meanwhile, will offer a blend of 3-D and 2-D movies. Van Noy said IMAX films or documentaries will be shown 90 percent of the time in the auditorium, although Carmike is not prohibited from scheduling non-IMAX movies to fill any gaps in new release schedules.
“IMAX has got a lot of commitments from the studios and is shifting more and more to commercial film instead of the documentaries,” he said. “And more and more studios are allowing the IMAX filming of their movies. So the pipeline is pretty strong.”
Van Noy conceded that with the IMAX experience will come a higher ticket price. He said patrons will see a $5 per person surcharge over basic auditorium viewing. That compares to $2 extra for a BigD ticket. There also is a small charge for use of glasses needed to watch 3-D films.
“What’s so attractive about this marriage, this partnership, is that the consumer, the movie-going public, now can decide at what level they want that experience, and at what price point they want to have that experience in,” said Van Noy, who believes IMAX potentially will draw customers from as far as 75 to 100 miles away from Columbus.
The IMAX website shows there are four theaters with the technology in the Atlanta market and one in Macon, Ga. The closest in Alabama are in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
And, no, this isn’t the only IMAX theater in Columbus. The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, which opened less than five years ago, has had a 289-seat IMAX auditorium since day one.
Ben Williams, president of the National Infantry Foundation, which operates the world-class military museum, said the theater has a difficult time filling seats consistently because its projectors require print films, not digital.
“Ours is still a film-based system, which really presents a clearer, sharper picture, truthfully,” he said. “But we’ve had the issue of fewer and fewer prints being made available in the IMAX world. So we’ve been having to compete with many other theaters in much larger markets for the prints.”
That catch also has meant that the National Infantry Museum doesn’t get very many first-run Hollywood movies. One instance in which it did was “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” which made its debut in 2012 and was a solid attraction for the museum’s IMAX theater.
Other Hollywood movies shown at the musuem include a “Star Trek” sequel and “The Polar Express,” a holiday film now playing there. A new 3-D documentary, “Jerusalem,” is also now in the theater.
But, most of the time, Williams said, the museum’s theater gets IMAX movies six to eight weeks after they open nationally. He also said the foundation is studying its options concerning the theater, although the transition to digital projection would be costly for a museum that is still working to pay off its construction costs.
While Van Noy said he believes the Carmike and National Infantry Museum IMAX auditoriums can co-exist, Williams said he has concerns. “If they are opening this, it will definitely have a negative impact on our theater operations, which means it will have a negative impact on the museum overall,” he said.
As the Carmike-IMAX contract was announced in October, IMAX Chief Executive Officer Richard Gelfond said he welcomes the opportunity for expansion of the company’s own footprint.
“We’re also delighted to see the continued demand for IMAX domestically — particularly in the Southeast region of the U.S., which continues to present expansion opportunities for the company,” he said.
Carmike Cinemas currently operates 247 theaters (2,521 screens) in 36 states, all but a few digital and more than a third equipped to show 3-D films. Carmike President and CEO David Passman has made it a goal to grow the company to 300 theaters and 3,000 screens through new construction and strategic theater acquisitions.