Top tourist attraction to invest $800,000 into IMAX theater

The IMAX theater at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will bid farewell to giant reels of miles-long film and usher in digital 3-D projection for the first time on the cinema’s towering six-story screen.

The top-to-bottom renovation will replace the giant, curved white screen with a silver screen capable of showing 3-D movies at the cinema that attracts about 100,000 visitors every year, said Mary E. Bruggeman, chief of theater operations.

The theater joins hundreds across the nation that have been forced to turn to digital films after major studios switched to producing movies in the digital format.

This is the first major renovation at the $7.5 million theater since the cinema opened in 1991. The work will close the theater for two months beginning in January.

“Everything that is in the theater is coming out and being replaced new,” said Art Mercurio, D3D Cinemas vice president of technical services in Evanston, Ill. The company is replacing the film and sound systems.

An amped-up 7.1 surround sound system will feature 20 speakers surrounding the audience compared to two in the back of the theater today, Mercurio said.

Along with the new digital-image projection system, the theater will build a stage to host speakers for special events, replace 400 chairs and carpet. Crews have removed the first two rows, or 100 seats, to make way for the stage. The theater will improve audio and closed caption capabilities for disabled customers.

A digital system will allow the museum to choose from a larger number of films at less cost, and show longer commercial movies. The theater typically pays $22,000 to lease a 45-minute IMAX film plus royalties, Bruggeman said. A digital film will cost about $2,000. The new digital system will be one of “a handful” in the country to be able to show more frames per second for a stable, sharper image, Mercurio said.

In the projectionists’ room, a massive, water-cooled film projection system that fed reels of over-sized-frame, three-mile-long film will go out of service at the end of the month once a final film festival finale concludes Dec. 18-31, Bruggeman said. The museum is closed Christmas Day.

The end of the era of film isn’t one welcomed by George Willeman, a Springfield native who is the nitrate film manager at the Library of Congress. He once was the film caretaker for 150,000 Hollywood movies stored at Wright-Patterson before the pieces of cinema history were relocated to a cold storage facility in Culpepper, Va.

“I hope the showing of films never goes away because it is a very special experience,” he said.

But the expense to produce and store films is costly, he said. “On the one hand, the film business is called a business for a reason. They need to make money.”

Digital cinema packages have approached the quality of film. “As long as they work, they look beautiful,” he said.

The IMAX 15/70 film format is about 10 times as large as a 35-mm film, according to the theater. The large frame size provides clarity and sharpness in an IMAX movie.

The projection system needs a storage room of equipment to generate power and keep the projector cool. For example, distilled water runs through a chiller in a closed-loop system that feeds 10 gallons of water a minute to the giant IMAX film projector. The films are stored and stacked like cake platters on four-foot wide metal platforms. Two people load or unload the film, said Michael T. Andrews, assistant theater manager and a film projectionist.

“We don’t have to worry about damaging the film anymore,” he said.

A projectionist has to contend with chilly room temperatures to keep the film cool and the constant loud clicking of the movie running through the over-sized projector roughly the size of a walk-in closet.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t miss the era of film. “When everything is up here and working it’s kind of fun,” he said.

Digital films have reduced power consumption by about 40 percent in other theaters, Bruggeman said.

The Air Force Museum Foundation will pay most of the renovation through the sale of IMAX tickets, gift and book store receipts and donations. The Air Force owns the building and has provided workers to help with the construction, she said. The theater hasn’t decided if it will adjust the price of tickets with the improvements, she said.

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