Today, The Stones. Tomorrow, Stallone?

Rock promoter Michael Cohl has long felt that concert films don't capture the primal energy of rock 'n' roll. So when Cohl was organizing the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels world tour in 1989, he suggested they film it using big-screen technology developed by Imax Corp. Since Imax films are typically shown in museums, the group was skeptical, but in the end they agreed. Their film, At the Max, which opened in New York in late November and is now playing in 14 cities, is a runaway success. Variety gushed that seeing the Stones on an enormous six-story-high screen makes previous concert films "look like the visual equivalent of vinyl records."

That's not all. The Toronto-based Imax is rolling out three new film technologies -- two new 3-D technologies plus a "high-definition" system. They play on huge 60- to-70 foot screens, compared with the 15-foot screens found in many commercial theaters.

Imax is a private company that will do about $50 million in sales and net $2 million to $4 million this year. If it can beat out growing Hollywood competition in the big-screen market, Imax may vault into the cinematic big leagues.

'BETTER THAN DISNEY.' The success of At the Max follows a similar commotion in Japan last year when one of Imax' new 3-D technologies, called Imax Solido, premiered at Osaka's Expo. Developed with Fujitsu Ltd., Solido creates images more lifelike than anything ever created before on celluloid. At Osaka, people became so immersed in the film -- Echoes of the Sun -- that they grabbed at objects that appeared to be floating in front of them.

A second film, The Last Buffalo, is exciting the theme-park industry. It uses yet another 3-D technology called Imax 3-D. "The gold standard in theme parks is Disney," says James H. Wintrode, president of Six Flags Great America, a theme park outside Chicago that premiered The Last Buffalo in the U. S. last summer. "But Imax 3-D is better than Disney." Indeed, lines for the film were so long that Six Flags boosted daily showings to 16 a day, and 1.1 million people saw it.

Imax first unveiled big-screen filmmaking in 1970. Museums found that an Imax theater "attracts a whole new audience and is a wonderful source of revenue," says Freda Nicholson, executive director of North Carolina's Science Museums of Charlotte. There are now 77 Imax theaters in North America, Japan, and Europe, mostly in museums. Together, they sell 30 million tickets a year. Next year, 20 theaters will open.

But there's the rub. Imax' success is built on museum and theme park theaters. For its radical technologies to really take off, it needs a large chain of big-screen theaters in cities and shopping centers -- and that will take big money. And throughout its 22-year history, "Imax has always lived off the deposit check from its next deal," says CEO Fred Klinkhammer, who is now searching for an equity partner. A public stock offering is also being considered.

CHALLENGERS. Imax also needs to cut the cost of its often unwieldy technology. Fujitsu spent $1.2 million for each minute of supercomputer graphics it created for Echoes of the Sun. The Stones movie was far cheaper, costing $10 million, but filming was "complicated and time-consuming," says Cohl, because Imax cameras hold only eight minutes of film.

Even if Imax gets the money, it will have to compete with several U. S. companies. The biggest challenger is Iwerks Entertainment Inc., of Burbank, Calif., launched in 1988 by two former Walt Disney Co. executives. Financial backing comes from a group of venture capitalists, including Scott G. McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems Inc. Iwerks, a private company with revenues of $ 15 million to $20 million, has already built around 40 commercial movie theaters.

Iwerks President Stanley B. Kinsey predicts that the company's cheaper technology will ultimately prevail. "Imax got the first rocket into space" with At the Max, Kinsey says, "but we're going to get to the moon first." Iwerks has signed on with Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, who is trying to get movie studios to make a full-length film that will use Iwerks technology, says Kinsey.

Who will win the big-screen race? Imax is ahead right now with At the Max, but Iwerks may have Hollywood behind it. In the end, it probably won't matter to the moviegoing public. Six-story screens showing supersharp movies are already generating excitement. And audience involvement in the oversize fantasy may be high enough to pull ever-reclusive coach potatoes out of their living rooms.

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