Since its arrival, IMAX, or Image Maximum, a motion picture projection technology owned by IMAX Company, headquartered in Toronto and New York, has dominated China's large film screen market. But with the launch of DMAX, or Digital Max, a Chinese independent product, IMAX's monopoly may soon be over.
On April 9, the large film screen developed by China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) was put into commercial use at a cinema in Hefei, East China's Anhui Province. Last year, CFGC equipped the UME cinema in Beijing's Shuangjing area with a similar screen.
"It was part of our research, we only used it as an experiment," said Cheng Yang, general manager of the digital film company under the CFGC, when referring to the screening last year.
"After three years of research and development in large film screen technology, we put our own product into commercial use for the first time," said Cheng.
He said that this year, the company expects to supply a total of 15 large film screens in domestic movie theaters, including cities like Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Changchun.
When the 20-meter high and 16-meter wide screen displayed at CFGC's movie theater at Hefei, the corporation marked itself as a professional supplier of large film screens, alongside the appropriate film formats, in China's market. The English name has not been confirmed yet, since the idea of naming it DMAX has been refuted by IMAX. (For consistency, the product will continue to be referred to as DMAX in this article.)
CFGC was not the first in China to develop large film screen technology. Beijing's Entgroup, a research and consultative group in the domestic entertainment industry, stated that as of February 2010, 22 large film screens were developed in the Chinese mainland market, 13 of which are in different movie theaters for commercial use. Nine are used in public interest places, like museums.
In mid-2010, the Jackie Chan Cinema in Beijing's Wukesong area unveiled its large film screen, 17-meter high and 25-meter wide, equipped for viewing by an audience of 590. Meanwhile, the Zhejiang Hengdian Cinema Circuit Co. LTD fitted their cinemas with more than 20 self-designed large film screens, with the general scale of 20-meter high and 16-meter wide.
Other cinema companies like ShiMao Cinema Investment Development Co.LTD have also started working on developing large film screens.
"We have registered ShiMao Vision as a brand for our large film screens," said Liu Ming, general manager of the company. They intend to produce 22 large film screens by the end of 2014.
Development for these large screens resulted from domestic companies seeking to compete on price.
"The cost of IMAX products is too high. The price of IMAX equipment in a cinema costs 10 million yuan ($1.59 million). Each year they have to give 15 percent of box office shares to IMAX. Additionally, cinemas purchasing the films have to pay $70,000 of copyright fees and $50,000 of maintenance fees per film, each year," said Cheng.
IMAX also requests that no other IMAX cinema exists within five kilometers of each other. Cheng said that IMAX does not show interest in converting China-made movies. These strict requests by IMAX are the reason many domestic companies are creating their own large film screen technology.
Yang Xuepei, president of China Research Institute of Film Science and Technology, said that the development of DMAX was 100 percent independent.
"We have intellectual property over this product. After three years, the quality is equal to IMAX. In everything, from design to image optimization, sound system to overall technology, DMAX has superior quality. Our stereo system is better than IMAX's, our's has 11.1 channel system. IMAX has 7.1," said Yang.
The cost for theaters to use this domestic technology is not high. According to Yang, a unit of their product is one million yuan at the lowest. Cinemas do not need to share a proportion of box office fees or pay any copyright fees. Converting a movie to DMAX only costs 100,000 yuan ($15,836) while IMAX costs over double the price. With many advantages, CFGC's DMAX has earned recognition both at home and abroad.
"20th Century Fox and Universal Studios have handed over 3D Titanic and Battleship respectively, for DMAX versions," Yang said. "For domestic films, Guns N' Roses directed by Ning Hao, 1894 Jiawu Naval Battle by Feng Xiaoning, and Wengu 1942 by Feng Xiaogang will all be shown in DMAX."
"In the future, the Chinese government will issue regulations for the standard quality of large film formats. "We will improve accordingly," Yang said.
At the moment, IMAX has about 60 screens in China. This number will increase to a hundred, at the end of this year.
"Compared to IMAX's dominance in the Chinese market, there's still a huge gap," Cheng said. "We hope to be the biggest competitor in the market, in the next two or three years."
Cheng lists three groups in the film screen market: IMAX, owned by IMAX company, DMAX, owned by CFGC, and independent large film products, produced by cinemas such as POLYMAX and ShiMao Vision. The latter usually releases products for their own cinema, not available for sale.
"The future of China's large film screen market will be competitive," said Hu Zheren, operation chief in Poly Film.
"Professional suppliers of large film screens will compete with independent supplies, breaking the current monopoly," he said.