The censorship issue is raised in a dispute with IMAX

“Haunted Castle” comes soon to an IMAtheater near you, whether IMAlikes it or not.

When the Canadian-based company started expanding into commercial multiplexes after two New York investors took over in 1994, IMAhad grand hopes of going beyond the educational and wildlife tradition. It touted possible projects like a 3-D “Star Trek,” “Three Tenors” concert tour, “Mark Twain’s America” and Disney animations.

Yet when director Ben Stassen of Belgian-based nWave Pictures _ the same folks responsible for “Thrill Ride” and “Alien Adventure” _ took 3-D IMAinto the territory of horror with “Haunted Castle,” IMAfelt he had gone too far.

The incident has touched off a discourse about the path IMAwill take: Will the company continue to strive for family-friendly fare, or will it be forced to expand into commercial offerings that make money but may not be suitable for all ages?

After viewing a work-in-progress screening of “Haunted Castle,” the corporate office faxed IMAtheater operators the world over to warn against the “violent episodes contained in the film (which) could be degrading to our brand.” The fax advised against exhibiting “Haunted Castle” or at least affixing “prominent, appropriate warnings.”

The scenes of concern in “Haunted Castle,” as the letter describes, “depict torture and violence.” They include skeletons facing an impending decapitation, an acid bath and an electrocution. The scenes could indeed be frightful to young children. An argument can be made that video games or television programs like “Friday the 13th” and “Goosebumps” _ the spooky book series which became a Saturday morning show _ have been just as gruesome.

Stassen says the notice decrying the 40-minute, special-effects fest at first shocked him. “Let’s face it,” he says, “we can’t afford failing.” The fax quickly turned out to be manna from the marketing heavens: Theater owners apparently did not take kindly to the “strongly” suggested dictates, and some European theaters actually changed their schedule to showcase the film.

” ‘What a stupid move on IMAX’s part,’ we started to laugh,” Stassen says. Amid the chuckling, promoters quickly photocopied the denunciation, attached a two-page response from the director and stapled on an introduction that starts off with the dramatic heading: “HAUNTED CASTLE: THE MOVIE IMADOESN’T WANT AUDIENCES TO SEE!”

They also breathlessly bandied the c-word: “IMACorp.’s partial ban is raising censorship issues that loom larger than the company’s giant-sized screens.”

“I think they’re totally overblowing it,” says Mary Pat Ryan, president of IMAX’s network group. She didn’t expect the fax _ which bears her signature _ to become part of the film’s marketing campaign, but she acknowledges the inadvertent result. “It’s brilliant PR. They needed press, and they’re getting it.”

Nevertheless, she says, “our point is that IMAstands for something.”

That something is family destination films in the nature of “African Serengeti” or the upcoming concert movie “All Access.” It has announced that Disney is working on five giant-screen pictures: a “Beauty and the Beast” remake, a live-action prequel to the 1979 “The Black Stallion,” “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” “Birds of Prey” and an unnamed Games project.

As a hardware manufacturer, IMAmakes, sells and licenses the equipment for large-format films. It also produces films and owns 14 theaters (none of which will show “Haunted Castle”). While IMAtheaters in general have shown R-rated works like “Matrix” and “Gladiator” and the PG-13 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Ryan says audiences see a clear distinction between those Hollywood screenings and movies specifically made for IMAX. What’s tricky in the case of the PG-rated “Haunted Castle” IMAis that audiences may automatically expect a movie suitable for adults and kids when in fact that’s not the case.

Suggesting what to show and what not to show is what many people in the industry feel is beyond IMAX’s purview.

The PG rating is enough for Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. and Regal Cinemas. Both companies plan to play “Haunted Castle” on all its screens nationwide.

“It’s not in Regal’s interest to censor for the audience,” says Jennifer Harris, director of corporate marketing.

Stassen finds IMAX’s unexpected _ and public _ response to his movie unsettling.

“It’s a little bit scary, if it really represents IMApoint of view,” he says. “Maybe our industry is in deeper trouble than we thought.” Stassen points out what ticker-tape observers know: IMAshares have plummeted to single digits. With the spread into multiplexes and nothing to show for it, he believes IMAshould get out of the way for those willing to make an economic commitment _ like the $12 million it can take to make a 3-D IMApicture. “Haunted Castle” is only the 20th IMAmovie ever made.

Is Stassen killing the family-style utopia that we know as IMAX, or is he guaranteeing its future viability? Ironically, “Haunted Castle” probably would have come and gone without a blip on the big-screen radar. It still may come and go despite the fuss: The movie’s special effects are the star _ unfortunately, with no acting or plot to detract from them. Stassen himself has heard the critical pans and recognizes the film’s limitations. After all, he says, nWave isn’t staffed with “brain-dead people.” He’s hoping the audience will gravitate to the experience and “overlook the fact the story line is fairly thin, to say the least.”

Nick Armington, president of Point Richmond-based Alchemedia Ltd. which has worked in large-format films, says IMAneeds to evolve. Trying to control the big picture _ a mistake that even the inventor of the motion picture camera made _ stifles much-needed product and innovation.

“Just as in the early days of cinema, when Thomas Edison controlled the screen, it was the independent maverick filmmakers who ultimately brought the medium to its next level,” Armington says. “Multiplex theaters show family films in one screen and slashers in another. Ultimately, it’s a parent’s responsibility.”

(c) 2001, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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