25 memorable moments from 25 years of BFI IMAX

As BFI IMAX celebrates its 25th anniversary, we look back over some highlights from the life of the UK’s biggest cinema screen.

1. Plans for a cinema on Waterloo roundabout are greenlit – June 1994

Historic photo of the Waterloo roundabout site

Designed by Bryan Avery of Avery Associates Architects, BFI IMAX was envisioned as part of a project to revitalise the area connecting Waterloo and the South Bank. Plans were drawn up for the cinema to be built in the middle of Waterloo roundabout, with planning permission obtained in 1994. The structure itself would be a feat of architecture and engineering: 40 metres in diameter, 5,300 tons, it would be suspended on a series of tailor-made springs to absorb vibrations from the Underground trains running just 4.5 metres below it. 

The piling layout for BFI IMAX
The BFI IMAX being constructed in 1999

2. Construction is completed – April 1999

Early photo of the BFI IMAX

“Commuters in their thousands have watched Avery’s 100-ft tall steel and glass cylinder rise,” wrote the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey, and by April 1999 the new landmark on the London skyline was finished. Inside, a giant IMAX screen (26m x 20m), which to this day remains the largest screen in the UK and third in Europe, was illuminated by an IMAX 3D GT 70mm film system, a dual film strip projector equipped with two water-cooled lamps totaling 30kW of power and paired with a 6-channel sound system. The new cinema opened its doors on 1 May 1999.

3. Prince Charles cuts the ribbon – June 1999

“It could be the control room for a nuclear power station. In fact it’s the projection room for the new IMAX cinema at Waterloo – the one with a screen as high as five double decker buses,” says the reporter for this London Tonight news item about the royal opening of Britain’s biggest screen on 11 June 1999. King Charles III (then Prince Charles) was there to cut the ribbon and, although infamous for his views on modern architecture, is said to have kept his opinion on the new landmark to himself. Local school children were invited to the event too, and enjoyed the premiere of a Russian oil-on-glass animated version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which was later named best animated short at the 2000 Academy Awards.

4. The Matrix Reloaded tests the water for blockbusters at IMAX – July 2003

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Early programming at BFI IMAX was dominated by immersive, short-form nature documentaries, as it remained hugely expensive to make purpose-made feature films in the larger format. But a technological breakthrough at the turn of the millennium made it possible to convert 35mm film into the 70mm prints needed for IMAX projectors. In November 2003, The Matrix Revolutions would become the first live-action Hollywood blockbuster to debut on IMAX screens on the same day as conventional cinemas – a strategy that would revolutionise the way blockbusters are first seen. To test appetites, in July that year the previous Matrix film went on re-release at BFI IMAX, to boost box office receipts for a film that had already played conventional cinemas a few months earlier. 2,000 advance tickets were sold.

5. The Polar Express (with huge 3D glasses) becomes a Christmas tradition – December 2004

The Polar Express (2004)
Viewer watching The Polar Express in 3D at BFI IMAX

3D glasses have come a long way since the days when Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture fantasy The Polar Express (2004) became an annual Christmas tradition at BFI IMAX. Like The Matrix Revolutions, Zemeckis’s film became one of the major early examples of a film being released at BFI IMAX on the same day as other cinemas, but it was also the first full feature film to be remastered in 3D for the IMAX screen. All of which helped it to become, for a time, the venue’s most successful film, with families returning year after year and selling out screenings soon after tickets went on sale. 

6. Charles Atlas and Christian Fennesz bombard the senses – March 2007

Christian Fennesz performing at BFI IMAX in 2007

As part of the second Optronica festival playing across BFI IMAX and the newly reopened and renamed BFI Southbank (formerly the National Film Theatre), New York video artist Charles Atlas and Austrian electronic music pioneer Christian Fennesz joined forces for this trippy, audiovisual meeting of minds. Incredibly loud and intense, Fennesz’s lush laptop and guitar compositions played over Atlas’s live video collage: a bombardment of sampled clips and archive footage. The Wire magazine wrote: “Paired with Atlas’ emotive, sensuous, gauzy model faces haunting the giant IMAX screen, Fennesz’ deft accommodation of keyboards, guitars and samplers simmers into a masterful showcase.”

7. Peter Greenaway plays necromancer – March 2007

Peter Greenaway

Billed by Londonist at the time as “one of the few 64-year-olds to have a MySpace”, British filmmaker and provocateur Peter Greenaway brought his own bespoke, touch-screen VJ kit to BFI IMAX for this mischievous live remixing of elements from his multimedia The Tulse Luper Suitcases project. Having just given an iconoclastic, auteur-bashing, “cinema is over” interview at BFI Southbank, he wandered over to BFI IMAX to assume the role of an image-conjuring Prospero, summoning a jumble of footage of money, babies, suitcases, corpses, and playfully conducting each sequence around to different areas of the huge screen. 

8. Nitin Sawhney and Es Devlin project visions of city living – November 2008

London Undersound event at BFI IMAX

Over the years, this “cauldron of cinema” – in the words of BFI’s Stuart Brown – has played host to many playful, envelope-pushing events that have tested the limits of what you can do with sound and visuals in the space. In this live audiovisual experience, musician Nitin Sawhney and stage designer Es Devlin came together for an IMAX event to coincide with onedotzero’s first festival at BFI Southbank. To the unplugged sounds of Sawhney, and under the direction of Luke Halls, Devlin presented a vision of modern city life as one of compartmentalisation. The theme was interpreted by dancer Dam Van Huynh, whose pre-recorded performance was then animated by Jan Urbanowski and played on screen. 

9. Ken Jacobs and Eric La Casa fill a huge, flickering canvas – November 2008

Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern show

Legend of US avant-garde cinema Ken Jacobs teamed with sound artist Eric La Casa for this pulsating expanded-cinema experience in November 2008. Jacobs knew to expect a big screen but seemed giddy when he found the multi-storey canvas towering over him. One of his Nervous Magic Lantern shows, the performance created flickering and abstract 3D tricks of the eye, what Jacobs calls “movement without motion”. Meanwhile, La Casa served up a soundscape of manipulated sounds from everyday locations, from lift shafts to ventilation ducts.

10. James Bond fans stay up all night – April 2009

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)Danjaq, LLC and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

To coincide with Albert R. Broccoli centenary celebrations going on at nearby BFI Southbank, in 2009 the BFI IMAX hosted a world first: James Bond films screened all night long. Kicking off at 11:30pm one Saturday night in April, the line-up included four of the finest 007 outings: Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Free tea and coffee were supplied in the 30-minute breaks between films, to help keep viewers awake during the screenings – or they could plump for a dry martini in the venue’s new ground-floor bar. Other all-nighters during BFI IMAX’s first decade include The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Bourne trilogy and the first five Saw films back to back.

11. It’s Avatar Day: James Cameron unveils 16 minutes of Avatar, four months before release – August 2009

Avatar (2009)20th Century Fox

One August morning in 2009, BFI IMAX was jam-packed with an audience who’d won their ticket via lottery. James Cameron hadn’t made a feature since Titanic, 12 years earlier, and speculation was rife about his years-in-the-making passion project, Avatar. With a release date set for December, he made a knight’s move to silence the naysayers four months early with a global event called Avatar Day. Appearing on screen to introduce 16 minutes of footage from the film, he checked the audience had their 3D glasses on and then, for the first time, viewers and critics were transported to planet Pandora and the blue tomorrows of the 22nd century. A publicity coup, it whet appetites for what would become the most successful film ever made. On release that winter, BFI IMAX reported average 99% occupancy.

12. Rock climber Leo Houlding abseils down the side of the building – June 2010

Telling the story of the disappearance of climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine during an attempt on Mount Everest in 1924, mountaineering documentary The Wildest Dream opened at BFI IMAX in June 2010 with a charity premiere where guests included David Attenborough, Ken Russell and onetime ‘Bond girl’ Maryam d’Abo. Just before the film went on screen, passers-by looking up would have seen British climber Leo Houlding, who appears in the film, dangling from a rope over the side of the BFI IMAX building as he abseiled down to street level wearing a tuxedo.

13. The first digital projector and a new silver screen are installed – June 2012

The digital projector installed at BFI IMAX in 2012

By installing a dual-projector IMAX digital projector, right next to the IMAX 3D GT film system, BFI IMAX becomes the first IMAX theatre in the UK to offer the option to show a movie on 70mm print or digital. As part of this upgrade, a new screen sheet is also installed. It took a team of 10 people to raise the 800kg screen to its full height of 20 metres. Then a spray gun was used to paint the screen on-site with a special reflective silver coating. The first film to be screened with the new gear? The Amazing Spider-Man. 

Installing the new screen at BFI IMAX

14. The Dark Knight Rises takes £1 million in pre-sales – July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises wrap at BFI IMAX in 2012

Having already broken BFI IMAX records for highest first day sales ever (24,754 tickets grossing £409,838) and the highest first week sales ever (38,658 tickets grossing £634,013), advance tickets sold for the final part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy crossed the £1 million mark just two days ahead of the film opening on 20 July. That’s 62,300 tickets sold, as thousands of Batman fans snapped up the opportunity to see the film on Britain’s biggest screen. The advance box-office gross and number of tickets sold beat the cinema’s previous best-ever advance sales, which were for Avatar in December 2009 (£607,000 sales for 47,000 tickets).

15. Derek Jarman’s Blue fills the screen – March 2014

Blue (1993), Derek JarmanBasilisk Communications Ltd. Photo Liam Daniel

In the spring of 2014, we closed out our two-month Derek Jarman retrospective at BFI Southbank with a very special presentation: Jarman’s swansong Blue projected at truly magnificent scale. Flooding the IMAX screen with this single colour, Jarman’s film drew the audience into the director’s vision-impaired world, as they listened to the textured soundscape and the recollections of Jarman and his close friends giving a moving account of his life and loves. 

16. Jean-Luc Godard melts synapses in IMAX and 3D – October 2014

Goodbye to Language (2014)

As the great French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard once famously said: “Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” In 2014, we decided to find out what the truth is like in 3D, 24 times a second and projected at the height of five storeys. 

Emboldened by the packed house for Jarman’s Blue at BFI IMAX earlier that year, the BFI London Film Festival opted to show JLG’s new synapse-melting 3D essay film Goodbye to Language on the IMAX screen. “He has made a very big statement about an alternative way to use 3D technology, incorporating that technology with his usual interest in language and philosophy,” festival director Clare Stewart told the Guardian. “Let’s put it in an unexpected environment. To have the opportunity to see it on such a big screen is going to be really exciting for people.” 

Eyewitnesses report that critic Jonathan Romney introduced the screening by telling the audience they were about to have an experience akin to sticking your finger in a socket.

17. Tom Cruise arrives on the BFI IMAX roof – July 2015

Tom Cruise on the roof of BFI IMAX for the premiere of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)Paramount UK

For the UK premiere of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in July 2015, the peril-embracing megastar famous for doing his own stunts opted to do a photo shoot high up on the IMAX roof. Since then, the urban myth has persisted that Cruise proceeded to abseil down the side of the building. But no, we’ve already found out who the abseiler was…

18. Victorian life is seen at vast scale – October 2018

Me and My Two Friends (1898)

This archive gala at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival bridged the gap between Victorian technology and the state-of-the-art IMAX era. Transporting us to the dawn of cinema, it offered a compilation of early films shot on antique large-formats 68mm and 60mm. Backed with live music from a six-piece band on stage, turn-of-the-20th-century images of landscapes, street scenes, animals, soldiers and royals rushed before us in astonishing pin-prick clarity. Reviewing the event for Sight and Sound, Pamela Hutchinson said: “The gala offered the same immersion into Victorian life that usually only comes with reading a fat Dickens novel by a wintry fireside.”

19. Tom Cruise comes to see Tenet during the pandemic – August 2020

“Big movie. Big screen. Loved it.” In August 2020, in an impromptu pandemic-era effort to encourage audiences back to cinemas, a masked-up Tom Cruise posted a short video on his Twitter account showing him visiting BFI IMAX for a screening of Christopher Nolan’s spy blockbuster Tenet. First we see him take a taxi through the streets of London, then take his seat in the BFI IMAX next to Mission: Impossible – Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie, saying to the audience: “Great to be back in a movie theatre, everybody.”

20. Antarctic expeditions old and new are brought together – January 2022

The Endurance at night, as seen in South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919)

Marking the centenary of the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which is often seen as drawing the curtain down on the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration, the epic BFI IMAX screen played host to this special screening of the BFI National Archive’s restoration of the 1919 film of his fateful 1914 to 1916 Endurance expedition, when the ship was crushed, stranding the crew. Broadcaster Dan Snow Zoomed in directly to share live updates from his own Antarctic expedition to find the wreck of the Endurance, before the Covent Garden Sinfonia appeared on stage to accompany the film with Neil Brand’s newly commissioned score.

21. BFI IMAX reopens with laser projection – November 2022

BFI IMAX’s new screen and seats

In November 2022, we reopened the doors of BFI IMAX to show off an ambitious refurbishment: new seats, a new 4K IMAX laser projection system, booming 12-channel sound technology and a brand new 65 foot IMAX screen. The laser system brings an increased level of brightness to fill the screen with the most vivid and lifelike images in both 2D and 3D.

22. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever tests the new tech and gets everyone dancing – November 2022

Director Ryan Coogler Zoomed in for an on-screen intro to this splashy BFI IMAX reopening event, the premiere of his Black Panther sequel. It was the first try out for the venue’s new laser projector and sound system. Organised in conjunction with We Are Parable, specialists in creating culturally relevant experiences around Black cinema and TV, the show raised the roof with a performance by AfroQueens, who got the 500-strong audience dancing along in the foyer.

23. The race is on to construct the 70mm print of Oppenheimer – July 2023

In the midst of the frenzy of press and audience anticipation for Christopher Nolan’s atomic age epic last July, 53 boxes marked ‘fragile’ and bearing the codename ‘Gadget’ arrived at BFI IMAX. Inside were 53 reels of celluloid: the 11 miles or 260,006 frames of 15/70mm film which then needed to be spliced together to construct a runnable print – a process which took 23 hours over the course of a weekend, with projectionists working around the clock. This was one of only 30 prints of Oppenheimer in IMAX 15/70mm in the world, and it nearly didn’t get to us in time, following a customs hold-up. A mad dash was required to collect the boxes, pile them into the back of a car and bring the precious load to London.

24. Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon plays huge – December 2023

Napoleon (1927)

To coincide with the release of Ridley Scott’s film of Napoleon, BFI IMAX presented a true one-off: all five-and-a-half hours of Abel Gance’s monumental silent version unfurled against the vast IMAX screen. Gance’s 1927 epic was always too big for a standard cinema screen: for its climax it expands on to three separate projections, each at times tinted with the colours of the French flag. As Paul Ridd, new director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, tweeted: “Abel Gance’s Napoleon was a joy to behold on the massive BFI IMAX screen … A busy house relishing the massive scale, fury and beauty of this epic film was hugely inspiring and encouraging for the state of repertory cinema in London. When that triptych kicks in, scenes!”

25. Christopher Nolan introduces Tenet – February 2024

“This is one of my favourite cinemas in the world,” said Christopher Nolan after taking to the BFI IMAX stage to introduce a screening of Tenet in IMAX 15/70mm – all part of Nolan’s visit to the BFI this winter to receive his BFI Fellowship. Tickets to the screening are said to have sold out in seven minutes flat, so it was in front of a packed house that Nolan suggested the best way to experience his famously brain-teasing espionage epic: “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.”

Compiled by Sam Wigley.

BFI IMAX is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a programme of its 10 highest-grossing releases, from The Polar Express to Dune: Part Two.