- Between Dolby Cinemas, IMAX, RealD 3D, and Regal RPX there are a lot of ways to watch a movie.
- And some movies like The Lion King are released in all of them.
- If you want the biggest screen size you can get, you want IMAX.
- But if you’re an audiophile you’ll love Dolby Atmos.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: This is the AMC on East Illinois Street in Chicago. They’re playing 17 movies. But you actually have 21 options because there’s so many formats. Should you see "Toy Story 4" in 3D? Digital? Hang on, what’s Dolby? And why does it cost 18 bucks? Which one do you pick?
If you’ve bought a movie ticket in the last decade, you’ve seen this: a bunch of different options, each with dramatically different prices. The same movie is being screened, but there are a lot of ways it can be projected. In order to figure out why there are so many formats, we need to find out what these actually mean. It’s more complicated than the five names you see listed.
Let’s start with the basics. Standard, sometimes just referred to as digital: This is your average movie-theater experience, found anywhere from Regal to a small independent theater. Then there’s 3D, the one with the glasses, usually branded as RealD 3D. These projectors use polarized light to create the illusion of depth, which supposedly makes the film more immersive. But a lot of people just find it disorienting. 3D movies aren’t as popular as they once were. In fact, in 2018, the MPAA reported a 20% year-over-year decrease in the global 3D box office. All right, let’s ditch those 3D glasses and check out the newest format to hit theaters, Dolby.
Dolby Digital Cinemas, made by Dolby, can be found at AMC theaters. It uses dual 4K laser projectors. That’s four times more resolution than a standard theater projector. These projectors produce super crisp images with deep blacks and bright highlights, at 500 times the contrast ratio and twice the brightness of a standard projector. Dolby is the best HDR you can get in the theater. High dynamic range means really bright highlights and really dark blacks. Dolby Cinema images appear less muddy or gray compared to the traditional projectors. Overall, it’s supposed to create a more realistic image. And it reminds you, over and over, with this video…
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Narrator: Yeah, we get it. But the biggest difference with Dolby is their sound system. They call it Dolby Atmos. All movie theaters use surround sound. That means using more speakers so the viewer can hear sounds from the direction they’re supposed to be coming from onscreen, like behind you, or to your right. But Dolby Atmos is like super surround sound. It uses many more speakers to completely surround the viewer. There are even speakers on the ceiling and transducers, which produce bass under the seats. There’s also a version of Dolby that offers 3D movies. Thanks to the higher-quality projectors, the image actually appears brighter than with traditional 3D. And then there’s IMAX.
You’ve probably heard of IMAX, because it’s actually been around since the ’70s. But this can get a little confusing, because unlike Dolby, not every IMAX theater is the same. Unique to IMAX is its huge screen, which is bigger than any other format, up to 40% larger, and it uses an aspect ratio that’s taller than other theaters. With some movies, this means you’re seeing more of the image instead of black bars on the top and bottom of the frame. The newest IMAX theaters use dual 4K laser projectors and have an upgraded sound system. But if you buy an IMAX ticket, you might not be getting your money’s worth. Depending on your theater, you may be getting what some refer to as Lie-MAX. These Lie-MAX, ahem, IMAX Experience theaters have a smaller screen and lower-resolution projectors. It’s not clear just from buying your ticket if your theater is IMAX with laser or Lie-MAX, but you can check this website to find out. Like Dolby, some theaters also offer IMAX 3D. But if you’re walking out of your IMAX movie wondering why the screen felt smaller than last time, you might spot one more logo.
RPX is Regal’s own large-format experience, offering bigger screens, newer projectors, and an updated sound system. That list probably sounds familiar by now. Basically, RPX will look and sound better than a standard movie theater. But it’s not as premium as Dolby or IMAX with laser. Oh yeah, there’s also 4DX, but, uh, that’s its own thing.
This is a lot of information. But that’s actually just digital. Some films offer special screenings where you can view actual film being projected. "Dunkirk" and "The Hateful Eight" offered 70-millimeter screenings. 70mm is huge, more than six times bigger than standard 35mm film. There’s also 70mm IMAX, which is how IMAX first started. Some moviegoers enjoy film projections because it creates a more organic and less sterile image compared to digital. Besides 70mm, some theaters still offer 35mm film projections, but these are usually for special events, not new releases. So yeah, there’s a lot more to these screenings than just their names.
Here are a few takeaways from all of those specs: Bigger screens, newer projectors, and larger sound systems usually make a better viewing experience. But if IMAX and Dolby are both bigger and higher-quality, which is better? Well, it depends. If you want the biggest screen size you can get, you want IMAX. With some screens over 80 feet wide, IMAX is way bigger than Dolby. Just make sure it’s IMAX with laser. But if you’re an audiophile who has to get the best sound possible, go with Dolby. Dolby Atmos is noticeably more immersive than traditional surround sound. Dolby theaters are also usually newer, so chances are it will be better maintained.
But both Dolby and IMAX have better quality control over the sound and image than a standard theater. Dolby does offer a crisper, brighter image with deeper blacks than IMAX. But both IMAX with laser and Dolby look great. The average moviegoer probably wouldn’t notice a difference without seeing these images side by side. But IMAX theaters also have a taller screen, so if you’re watching a movie like "Avengers: Endgame" that was specifically shot for IMAX, you’ll see more of the image instead of having black bars on the top and bottom. But projection isn’t everything. If you’re going to watch a three-hour "Avengers" movie, you want to be comfortable. Certain theaters offer reclining seats, food trays, or paired seats. These are a deal-breaker for some people. The specifics will vary theater to theater, but you can usually check online before buying your ticket.
Obviously, all of these features won’t come cheap. If you want to see a newer, higher-quality format, your ticket is going to cost more. Now, if all you wanted was to see a movie on a hot summer day, this might seem silly to you. But some people are passionate about how they watch a movie. And who can blame them? Movie tickets have hit an average price of over $9 nationwide, and in big cities it’s even more expensive. If you’re paying a bunch of money, you want the best experience possible. All of these formats give moviegoers more choice. If you just want to see a comedy with some friends, standard digital is probably fine. But if you’re seeing the big blockbuster you’ve been waiting a year for, it might be worth the extra money to see it in the biggest format available.
Different genres lend themselves to different formats. And these formats give directors and cinematographers more choices too. Christopher Nolan shot parts of "Dunkirk" with an IMAX camera, which made those exterior shots feel large and epic, while the interior shots felt tight and confined. The taller IMAX aspect ratio was used to add more impact to the story. And sound designers are able to be more detailed and creative when using a system like Dolby Atmos. All of these formats give filmmakers the opportunity to tell their story the way they want to tell it.
Of course, it helps the theaters too. Formats like Dolby and IMAX are a reason to go to the theater instead of watching at home. But whether you want crispy Dolby or grainy 35mm, you’ve got a lot of options. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if 3D was the only way you could see a movie.
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