November 21, 2008

Before CinemaScope and IMAX, there was … Cinerama!

… and with the help of a specialized form of letterboxing, called "Smilebox," you can experience Cinerama in your own home … well, sort of.

Only two feature-length dramatic movies were produced in the classic three-camera Cinerama process, and one of them, 1962's "How the West Was Won," recently arrived on Blu-ray. The two-disc set delivers two version of the movie: a flat version letterboxed at 2.89:1 (as described by High-Def Digest) on Disc 1, and a "Smilebox"-ed version, designed to better replicate the deeply curved Cinerama screen, on Disc 2.

Hoping to check out the Smilebox effect for myself, I ordered the Blu-ray of HTWWW on Netflix. Unfortunately, I (stupidly) didn't bother to check which disc I'd be getting, and I ended up with Disc 1—the flat version. That said, the disc does include a fascinating documentary about the development of the Cinerama process, along with some cool Smileboxed clips (pictured here).

What's so fascinating about Cinerama (many more details here) is that it arrived on the scene at a time in cinema history—the late '40s and early '50s—when movie attendance was in steep decline, all thanks to a new little box with rabbit ears and a screen. Clueless movie execs frittered about, wondering how to draw viewers back into the theaters. Sound familiar?

But then "This is Cinerama," the first big Cinerama blockbuster, debuted on Broadway in 1952, and audiences were bowled over by the massive curved screen and seven-channel sound. It was virtual reality for the masses (as one of the talking heads in the Cinerama doc put it), and "This is Cinerama" became the top-grossing movie of the year. (The original Cinerama process didn't last long, but if you're a fan of widescreen movies, you've got Cinerama to thank.)

Fast-forward to today, when movie execs and theater chains—freaked out by declining attendance—are hoping that digital IMAX and 3-D presentations will put butts back in the seats. It's a tall order—personally, I rarely go to the movies anymore thanks to my 46-inch Sony Bravia and Blu-ray player. That said, watching "The Dark Knight" in IMAX—complete with those eye-popping sequences when the screen opens up for full-on IMAX action—was well worth the (gulp) $16.50.

In any case … I now have the correct "How the West Was Won" Blu-ray disc in my Netflix queue, and I'll have a full report on the SmileBox version next week. Stay tuned.


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