BFI IMAX is finally upgrading to laser projection – but 1.43:1 fans will still be disappointed.

The BFI IMAX in London is one of the most iconic cinema locations in the country. Its large, circular design surrounded by glass sits in the center of a roundabout, and posters of the latest releases can be seen from a distance. At 20 meters wide and 20 meters high, the BFI often boasts that the screen is the largest in all of Europe. Its height means it can show 1.43:1 “full frame” content projected from one of the few 15/70mm IMAX film projectors still in operation, making it the location of choice for many moviegoers across the country – especially since Manchester’s Vue Printworks lost their cinema projector.

The cinema is relatively short, but the rake is high, so all 489 spectators have a good view. It’s so big that a seat near the back is preferable so you can see the entire view in front of you without neck pain – as anyone who’s sat in the front two rows will attest. Not that being so close to the front is necessarily a bad thing. I can remember the feeling when Batman’s flying ‘Bat’ hit the screen in 2012 The Dark Knight: The Return: the bass was so loud I could feel the boat taking off in front of me – hey, 4DX, eat your heart out.

The problem with BFI IMAX for several years, however, is that the 15/70mm IMAX film prints have all but disappeared. Yes, Christopher Nolan films always have prints, but this is one film every few years, along with the occasional showing of his back catalogue. However, beyond that, the cinema projector is left gathering dust. Movies with 1.43:1 content are released regularly, There is no time to die, Dune, Lightyearand No they’re all examples from the last couple of years – but only in digital form.

To fill a 1.43:1 screen with a full-frame digital image requires a dual-laser projector, and BFI’s Xenon-based 2K Xenon Digital Projector can only display them in 1.90:1 ratio, depriving their full impact.

Having seen many films in IMAX 1.43: scenes I can vouch for the impact they have, and as laser projectors have been around for several years, the BFI’s inability to screen digital 1.43 was a real stain on its claims to be the premiere UK film location.

With Odeon having been responsible for ticketing the BFI for the last few years, it seemed unlikely that this would change, but since the BFI regained control, (to coin a phrase) rumors had it that the BFI IMAX would finally get laser projector – and at the end of September 2022 it was finally announced that this would happen – and with it there would be an all-new screen and a 12-channel IMAX sound system – an upgrade from the six-channel.

However, there was good news and bad. The good news is that the 15/70mm film projector will be retained, but the bad news is that instead of a dual laser system, the BFI confirmed on Instagram that it would be a commercial laser (CoLa) – meaning that even these the years of waiting – guests would not be able to see IMAX 1.43:1 films digitally.

There is another hope for Londoners and those in the vicinity, This is the London Science Museum, which indeed has dual laser and 15/70mm projectors in its pavilion. The problem here is that, for reasons unknown, the Science Museum no longer shows commercial films.

As it stands then, Manchester Printworks maintains its position as the UK’s only digital-capable IMAX 1.43:1 venue. If then you are a London-based film buff and want to change that, then you should fill out this survey and argue that you want to see more films screened there. Let’s make it happen.

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