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Lord of the Rings to open in IMAX for first time, at worst time

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Peter Jackson’s 4K remasters will light up mostly empty cinemas

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The Eye of Sauron sits in front of Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Image: New Line Cinema

If a Barad-dûr falls in Mordor and no one is around to hear it, does the Eye of Sauron make a sound? Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX will find out starting this weekend, when the two companies release Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into large-format theaters for the first time ever.

IMAX announced Wednesday that new versions of the film, made possible by Jackson’s recent 4K remasters, would premiere in outfitted theaters across the country beginning this week. According to the announcement, Fellowship of the Ring will open in IMAX theaters on Feb. 5, while The Two Towers and Return of the King will head to the big, big, big screen on Feb. 12.

The LOTR re-release is set to play at 141 locations, Polygon is told, or about 66% of IMAX’s domestic network, and with discounted ticket fees. The reason is obvious: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. states remain under strict levels of lockdown that prohibit groups of moviegoers from gathering at their local multiplex. A number of states reopened theaters in the fall, only to shut things back down after cases spiked during the holidays. Still, despite CDC precautions, some people are going: Last weekend, Warner Bros. put its new simultaneous theatrical/HBO Max release plan to the test with the release of The Little Things, starring Denzel Washington. The movie made $4.7 million in 2,171 theaters, with Universal’s The Croods: A New Age, in its 10th week of release, coming in at No. 2 with $1.8 million.

An IMAX release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, two decades after the release of Fellowship, would normally be a reason to celebrate. To create the experience, IMAX used Jackson’s new 4K transfers as a base for its proprietary Digital Media Re-Mastering (DMR) process, which further enhances the image quality for IMAX screens. Jackson also remixed the audio into the IMAX audio format. But dropping a re-release in the midst of a pandemic is a bit like putting an all-powerful ring in front of a slobbering Gollum. To quote the conflicted former hobbit: Curse the Baggins!

Jackson’s 4K editions of the trilogy rolled out on 4K Blu-ray in December, sporting visual changes that the director said would allow the 20-year-old films to “look as if they were shot at the same time” as The Hobbit trilogy. “The thing with 4K is not just to go for pristine sharpness,” he said in December, “it is to preserve the cinematic look of it at the same time as everything becoming crisp.” One can only imagine how the new versions look on an IMAX screen, but it may be some time before most Americans know the answer. The potentially good news, Polygon has learned, is that pending availability when theaters reopen, IMAX hopes and plans to bring the trilogy back to theaters in a future window.

Update: After the publication of this article, Polygon learned additional information about the IMAX release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’ve edited the article to reflect the specifics.