Friday, Dec. 18, will see the worldwide release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the highly anticipated continuation of the iconic film franchise. Barring the pilot episode of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which received a much-derided theatrical release in 2008, The Force Awakens will be the first Star Wars film in over a decade, following 2005’s Revenge of the Sith — and with an unheard-of $50 million in tickets already pre-sold, the film is positioned to be one of the most successful blockbusters of all time.
Those who see The Force Awakens at the McWane Science Center’s IMAX Dome Theater, though, will see a version of the film unavailable to much of the rest of the world. That theater is one of just a handful of theaters worldwide that will be screening the movie on 15/70mm IMAX film, which the film’s director J.J. Abrams called the “best format ever” on the IMAX website.
For a key portion of the film — reports indicate that will be a lengthy action sequence set on the desert planet Jakku — the IMAX website states that the film’s image will “expand vertically to fill the entire screen with breathtaking image quality.” Abrams told Variety in 2014 that shooting the sequence in IMAX “was too delicious an idea to pass up. As a filmgoer, it’s something I want to see.”
Even so, only 15 copies of The Force Awakens exist in that format. Two of them will be shown in Alabama — Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center has the other — while 10 more are scattered throughout the U.S. The remaining three will be screened in Australia, England and Canada.
That scarcity is due to most IMAX theaters transitioning from film to digital projection. The decision for The Force Awakens to be released on film at all didn’t come until September, said Greg Sanford, the McWane Center’s director of IMAX and Simulator Operations. “It’s just been an ongoing process, going back and forth all year long and trying to crystallize who would be interested in [a film copy],” he said. “The prints are not cheap, and that’s part of the reason they’ve gone digital: economics.”
Sanford said that fewer and fewer major motion pictures are becoming available in the IMAX film format. The last Hollywood film to screen at McWane Center was 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness (also directed by Abrams). Last year, Sanford said, the theater attempted to screen space odyssey epic Interstellar, but was unable to do so due to the limited number of prints made of the movie. McWane Center was “lucky” to get one of the rare copies of The Force Awakens, Sanford said.
The shrinking demand for the film format means that McWane Center will likely go digital itself in the near future, Sanford added, noting that the recently unveiled “IMAX with Laser” digital projection system is expected to be adopted once it is adapted for the dome theater’s curved screen. “They just now have a system that is comparable to what you’re seeing on film,” Sanford said. “The technology has literally just caught up.
“That’s why we were ecstatic to get Star Wars on film, because more than likely this will be the last feature film that IMAX will be able to get on film, just on the basis that the movie industry has moved away from it,” Sanford said. “This might be the last time you’re able to see a feature film [in this format]. And if you’ve got to go out with a feature film, go out with a bang with Star Wars.”
That enthusiasm is reflected in McWane Center’s scheduled festivities surrounding the film’s release. In addition to two “soft open” screenings on Thursday, Dec. 17 — both of which are already sold out — a scheduled “Star Wars Celebration” will take place on the evening of Dec. 18. Members of the 501st Legion, an international organization dedicated to Star Wars cosplay, will be present, costumed as characters from the franchise such as Darth Vader, Boba Fett and Princess Leia (as well as, potentially, new characters from The Force Awakens). Star Wars trivia and giveaways will take place, as well as appearances by Star Wars comic illustrators Geoffrey Gwin and Patrick Giles. A “Kids Star Wars Weekend” is also planned for Jan. 16–18.
Sanford said that McWane Center’s goal is to make The Force Awakens an all-around immersive experience, from the sound system — “We were actually told we had to be careful; they cranked it down in the final mix for our sound system so they wouldn’t blow the sub bass,” he said — to the theater’s massive motion picture.
“If you come to our theater, you’ll go, ‘Wow, I just got wrapped around when the Millennium Falcon was diving through the Star Destroyer,’” he said. “It’s really cool, by the way.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens will premiere on Friday, Dec. 18. The film will screen four times daily at McWane Center’s IMAX Dome Theater through Thursday, Jan. 28. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit mcwane.org/star-wars-episode-vii-the-force-awakens.