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They’ve become a familiar site at museums and various family attractions theaters with giant, multi-story screens showing documentaries on space, nature and wildlife.

But the fare is about to change as Toronto-based Imax Corp. expands its big-screen movie houses into the local mall’s multiplex where exhibitors want something a bit more exciting to fill the seats.

“With so many Imaxs going up, there has to be a trend for more commercial value,” said Don Barton, vice president and sales manager for Edwards Theaters Circuit Inc.

Edwards operates two Imax theaters in Irvine and plans to open one in Westchester as part of a 22-screen multiplex in the planned Howard Hughes Entertainment Center.

But Barton said growth of the format will hinge on the production of more commercially appealing movies and not just space and wildlife stuff.

“The big ‘if’ on Imax is the film,” Barton said. “We could build them and if we don’t have the film we can’t show anything.”

Current showings at the Imax Theater at the Museum of Science and Industry, for example, include “Alaska: Spirit of the Wild,” “Whales,” and “Africa: The Serengeti.”

The films, which run about 40 minutes (adult admission: $6.25) are a hit with school children on field trips but they don’t exactly compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

“Nobody is about to spend $200 million on a film to put it out on Imax,” said Art Rockwell of Yaeger Capital Markets, which conducts research for institutional investors.

Enter New Wave International, which hopes to provide a new generation of big-screen films with broader commercial appeal.

The Belgium-based company, which has local offices in Sherman Oaks, is releasing a new Imax-format movie called “Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun.”

Despite the word “science” in the title (inserted, perhaps, to ensure a spot on the marquee at traditional Imax theaters), “Thrill Ride” is largely a hold-on-to-your-seat experience.

One moment you’re in a roller coaster car plunging down a hill at speeds hitting 70 mph, and the next, you’re dangling atop the tallest thrill ride in the world.

On Imax-screens that are up to 9-stories tall, the images can be frighteningly realistic.

New Wave decided to produce the film because of the expansion of the Imax theater chain into mall megaplexes, said Charlotte Huggins, chief operating officer with New Wave.

To make large-format films that are economically successful, Huggins said producers will have to look to “crossover” films like”Thrill Ride,” which is being distributed by Sony Pictures International.

“The crossover film will have a strong educational content as well as being very commercially entertaining,” Huggins said.

New Wave plans to make four crossover films a year for the next three years, including a 3-D film with elements to get the audience jumping in their seats.

“This is all very exciting for us,” Huggins said. “It’s like the (big-screen) industry has not existed like an industry, like it’s just waking up.”

In part, the wake-up call seems to stem from the location of big-screen theaters as part of multiplex cinemas.

“We’ve become the darlings of the commercial exhibitor sets, ” said Andy Gellis, senior vice president of Film for Imax’s Los Angeles office.

Imax Corp. is the top supplier of big-screen theater systems, with 153 theaters worldwide.

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