REVIEWING THE CINEMARK XD THEATER AT THE HOWARD HUGHES CENTER
For those of us who love the “Big Screen” and live in or near the wilderness that is West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, LAX, etc., the movie theater at the Howard Hughes Center long featured one of the “TRUE IMAX” theaters within a hop, skip, and a jump of our homes. Now, when I say “TRUE IMAX”, I mean IMAX film and not the “LIE MAX” projection systems being featured at some of the AMC theaters in the area. The latter are, I believe, pretty much mediocre digital projections on “large” screens (Which are invariably smaller than the screen at the Cinemark-Howard Hughes Center.). Why they are allowed to call these theaters “IMAX” is beyond me, but maybe someone out there can enlighten me.
What I want to do is have an honest examination of the pros and cons of having a true IMAX theater and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the “Big Screen” projection systems of movie theaters in general. What I am going to focus on is the transition that the Cinemark Theater (Formerly The Bridge and then The Rave.) at the Howard Hughes Center from our beloved IMAX to the XD “Extreme Digital Cinema”. I’m not claiming to know everything about all of the technologies, though I am reasonably fluent and understand the difference between film and digital projection as well as the nuances of resolution, 3D projection, etc.
On that note, I’ll get started. NO MORE IMAX AT THE HOWARD HUGHES CENTER!!! What we have now is “Cinemark XD Extreme Digital Cinema”. What are the advantages and the disadvantages? First off, I don’t think anyone will argue that the definition of most digital projections we’ve seen can rival that of a well-shot IMAX/ 70mm film. The problem, as I see it, is that there just aren’t that many film prints out there. I wish we had 50 Christopher Nolans making films and using IMAX cameras, but we don’t. I can’t tell you how many movies I wanted to see at the IMAX theater at the Howard Hughes Center, but couldn’t because digital projection was the only way to show them.
So the question becomes one of trade offs. Do we want to see more of our favorite films in a large screen digital format or do we want to see a lot less of these films on an IMAX screen that are printed and shown in a true IMAX format? I think that question can only be answered by comparing not just quantity, but the quality, of the projection and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on. Before I start, I want to make what I consider to be an important distinction between “resolution” and “definition”. Resolution is a function of the number of pixels that are digitally projected on a screen. Definition, to me, is the clarity of the projection itself. Film doesn’t have “resolution” in the same way a digital projection does. Another way to think of it might be is the difference between digital and analog sound recordings. There’s no noise in a digital recording, but the more bits, the truer the sound. Analog recordings contain noise, but can have very good “definition”. I think “definition” can be used to describe either digital projection or film and, while some may disagree, I think that a well processed 35mm film can have approximately the definition of a 6K digital projection and 70mm is probably about 8K or more. Others may disagree and I don’t know of any way to prove this.
The Cinemark at the Howard Hughes Center opened the doors to their new XD theater on the evening of Thursday, April 3rd by showing “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Once I found out about this, I immediately cleared my schedule for the afternoon of Friday, April 4th and caught the 12:30pm showing. I was given full access to the theater, the projection room, and the technical specifications of the XD equipment. I have some pictures which will hopefully give people a better idea of the overall flavor of this new theater as well as technical information on their XD projection system.
After I got into the theater complex for the Captain America showing and approached the XD entrance, it became clear to me that there is a major push to make sure people know all about “EXTREME DIGITAL CINEMA”. I thought the lights and signs were pretty cool (see photos) and found myself excited by what was behind those doors. When I walked in, I was struck by a couple of things. First off, the screen looks to be the same size as the old IMAX screen and there are the same amount of seats in the theater. I did my best to pace off the size of the screen, which was difficult because the walkways are curved, but it appears to be about 85’ wide. I did an eyeball of the screen aspect ratio and believe it to be about 60+’ in height. Since definition (or resolution) is a big deal to me, I decided to sit in the 3rd row, as it would allow me to really stress test the resolution of the image on the screen.
ON SCREEN EXPERIENCE
While watching “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, I paid special attention to the resolution from my seat in the middle of the 3rd row. The projectors used for 3D are (2) 4K Barco projectors and I was very, very impressed by the clarity of most of the movie. It is, without a doubt, a clear step up from the LIEMAX digital projection at the local AMC theaters. For 2D showings, there is a 3rd Barco projector that is used. I’ll have some photos of it at the end of this review. In one segment of the movie that sticks out in my mind, the definition of Scarlett Johansson’s face was so clear, I could see a small skin flaw on her right cheek (and let me tell you, it was a “very” attractive flaw). A few other scenes seemed to be less clear and appeared to be ever so slightly grainy (Remember, I was sitting about 25’ from a HUGE screen). Given the clarity of some scenes, I am quite sure this has to do with how the movie was shot (Lighting?? Different types of source material?? Other??), rather than the capability of the projection system. The bottom line is that the projection system at the Cinemark can “easily” handle a screen the size of a legitimate IMAX screen without noticeable degradation of resolution; at least to my eyes. Is the definition equivalent to IMAX? I watched “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” at this theater in true IMAX (much of the latter shot with IMAX cameras) and I say that the answer is “No; not quite”. At the same time, there were SO many movies I wanted to see at the IMAX theater, but couldn’t because no IMAX film prints were made. That, in my opinion, is the trade off. As it stands now, if there’s a movie I want to see in the true IMAX format, I guess I’ll have a bit of a drive to see it, but the Cinemark XD theater allows me to watch the big screen, blockbuster digital only releases on an IMAX sized screen just minutes from my home and not have to go to some theater with a so-so screen.
We were given some special, rather sturdily constructed 3D glasses for CA:TWS. The 3D projection of Cinemark’s XD is “circularly polarized” 3D (Real 3D) rather than “linear” 3D (IMAX 3D). I could tell this was the case not only by looking at the glasses, but because when I tilted my head, I didn’t get the ghosting/crosstalk that you see with the linear IMAX 3D and I actually prefer the circular 3D because of that. There are, however, advantages to linear 3D, which I won’t go into here. I had a pair of the standard “Real 3D” glasses in my coat pocket, but didn’t realize it until the movie was over so I didn’t actually test them, but they are essentially the same glasses. I’ll include a photo of the glasses that I took before I left the theater just because I thought they were kind of cool. As far as ghosting or crosstalk, this happens in every 3D theater I’ve ever been in. In some scenes, ghosting was noticeable if you were looking for it, but was certainly no worse any other 3D theater showing. At home I have a 3D DLP projector which utilizes 3D link technology, which has virtually no ghosting/ crosstalk and is, in this aspect, superior to theater projection 3D technology.
The theater utilizes the Auro 11.1 sound system which incorporates 3 layers of sound (ear-level, height, and overhead). The idea behind this is that it more accurately mimics the natural sounds we hear every day. To be fair, I didn’t focus on the sound system until the movie was over, but the sound system was very good and full without being overpowering. I’ve been in theaters where I thought the sound was lacking, but the Cinemark’s XD sound system created no distractions whatsoever. There are 7 pairs of speakers (seated higher and lower) on each side of the theater and speakers across the back of the theater. I don’t know about the front speakers (I suspect they exist behind the screen??) and am actively trying to get more information. If a good mix is presented to the Auro 11.1 sound system, you will have good sound. They use the Crown I-Tech 5000 series amplifiers (2500W @ 4 ohms) and I think you’ll be pretty impressed when you see the photo.
SEATING, COMFORT, AND A LOUNGE
The seats seemed to be narrower than some of the other seats in the theater, but it ends up that this is due to the fact that they have high backs for head support and that makes them look narrower. The high backs also make for a more comfortable viewing experience. There is plenty of leg room and, when no one is sitting in front of you, the back of the armrests of the second row make pretty awesome footrests as the seats line up perfectly (I’m sure those at Cinemark are going to be thrilled to hear about this). I’m quite sure the XD upgrade was expensive beyond my imagination and I can’t blame anyone for wanting to be able to seat as many moviegoers as possible in a single showing, but, that being said, they kept the same number of seats and the result is that you never feel crowded. So, the overall message here is that the seats are way more comfortable than those in most theaters, have excellent head support, and legroom isn’t a problem.
This Cinemark also features a lounge with a pretty extensive menu and anything you can to drink (including “adult” beverages). It isn’t open in the morning, but is bright, comfortable, and has plenty of seating with TVs along the walls in case you want to watch a game or something like that. The prices are higher than what you might normally pay, but this is a theater; not a McDonald’s. Theater food always costs more than what you would normally pay. Go buy a tub of popcorn and see if I’m not right. For theater food, I’d say the prices are pretty reasonable.
In my opinion, the XD Theater at this Cinemark offers a much better experience than the LIE MAX Theater I’ve seen at local Century City AMC (I will continue to frequent the AMC depending on what is playing at what time and at what price.). The XD screen at the Cinemark is larger, the image is noticeably clearer, and the seating is more comfortable. The Howard Hughes Cinemark has screens in their standard theaters that rival the alleged “IMAX” at Century City and are much, much larger than the standard AMC screens. Ticket cost is always an issue for me and parking at Howard Hughes is a $3 flat fee or about that for timed parking. That’s something you need to add to the cost of the ticket, as there are other nearby theaters that offer validated parking (including Century City). The bottom line for me is that I think having an IMAX sized screen with a very clear digital projection, comfortable seats, and a great sound system outweighs the advantages of having a true IMAX projection system because there just aren’t enough high quality film prints out there. If I can’t see the movies I want on a truly large screen, having an IMAX Theater doesn’t really help me or anyone else. Who needs an awesome, empty theater? Not you; not me; and certainly not Cinemark. If I feel the need to see a movie in true IMAX, I’ll find a place to see it in that format. In the meantime, I’ll be watching more movies than I otherwise would on an IMAX sized screen at the Cinemark’s XD Theater.
Cinemark has clearly done their homework and put together a very impressive theater package. While I’ll miss the IMAX, this is by far the best theater on my side of town and is able to show a wider array of movies.
What do others think? If others have more detailed technical information on the differences between IMAX, LIEMAX, and XD, your input will be appreciated. If you’d like me to go into more depth on any of the issues I’ve raised (3D, resolution, etc.), let me know and I’ll be glad to do so.
Below are some links to the photographs I took.