The cinema doesn’t often feature in discussions about advertising, but the IMAX format is something quite different. The biggest, Grand Cinema Sunshine, opened in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro area last month.
The launch promotion was a creative undertaking on a comparable scale to the complex itself, which features an 18-metre screen and seats up to 500. Created by Drill, an independent agency in Tokyo, the director Kosai Sekine, and production company Nion, it took the form of an existential love story, Transphere, which is currently screening at the cinema. The work represents Japan’s first original IMAX production.
Creating it was a logistical nightmare that required a good deal of improvisation. “Because this was the first full-size production of an IMAX film, we didn’t have the correct equipment or editing facility,” said Satoshi Takahashi, co-founder and producer at Nion. They had initially expected to use a 70mm Alexa camera to shoot the footage.
“But bringing one to Tokyo from the US would have used up all our budget,” Sekine explained. In the end they made do with an Alexa LF. Once the shooting was done, they found there was no post-production facility in Japan capable of taking on such work, so finalised the film at the IMAX facility in Los Angeles.
The whole initiative should offer encouragement to those wary of committing to a project without having a precedent to refer to. “We didn’t have any experience of making something like this,” Sekine said. “And there was no one we could turn to for advice. But that gave us energy and excitement... Asia is still a frontier [geography] when it comes to filmmaking.”
He said they looked at existing cases from the US for guidance. The whole project, excluding scriptwriting, took about six months, including around two for visual effects. Takahashi declined to discuss the budget, but it appears that sticking to it was not easy.
The resulting film has been well received, despite initial concerns that it might be too complex for people to appreciate. The story charts the journey through time and space of two souls who are somehow destined to be together. The aim was to demonstrate the sensorially immersive, occasionally mind-blowing nature of the IMAX experience, while presenting a story that impressed people emotionally.
Sekine said he and Jun Nishida, a content writer at Drill, initially considered a sci-fi adventure set inside the human body, but opted for an experimental love story set in multiple universes because they saw it as the best way to appeal to a young audience, which was a priority for the cinema.
While the promotion was Japan-specific, Takahashi said IMAX representatives in the US were taken with it, and is hopeful that it may come to be screened internationally. “We were surprised because they were surprised,” Sekine said. “They didn’t expect something like this, especially from Asia.”
From an experience point of view, Nishida said the project was valuable in that it was not so much an exercise in promoting a product for future consideration, but getting them to experience the product immediately. The lessons he took from this effort “I think I can use for future films”, he said.
Could IMAX ever become a viable format for other types of branded content? Given the cost and practical challenges involved, it would require a very strong will to see it through, but Nishida said in theory there is potential for brands to use IMAX to create something truly unique and engaging.
“I was kind of amazed at how the audiences could follow the story,” Sekine said. “Because of the huge screens I felt this story may be too complicated. But after seeing some reactions on social media, I realised people have a lot of capacity for this kind of visual storytelling.”
The film’s exact run has not been determined, but it is expected to screen at least until the end of August.