Seventeen years ago, the first IMAX 3D arrived in Shanghai. These days, cinephiles are spoiled for choice and movie chains are competing to have the latest technology (except headphone jacks – why can’t we get some headphone jacks up in here?). We have Dolby Cinema, Luxe 2.0, and LED screens to choose from, in addition to Chinese premium film formats CGS, Polymax, Star MAX.
Before We Start
Palace Cinemas, a chain, are a sure bet. No because of their specs — they are not the highest — but for their atmosphere. They are usually in high-end shopping malls, which you pay for (IMAX 3D typically 110rmb+), but you do get a very pleasant movie experience. In downtown, there are Palace chains at IAPM, Raffles and IFC.
Newer malls = better cinemas. Like the Bona Cinema at Bund Finance Center, or the OSGH Cinema at LuOne.
Take advantage of Taobao’s Taopiaopiao (淘票票) app. It can also be accessed inside Alipay. The “特色” (specialty) button helps you filter out cinemas based on the major formats they support: dual-projector 3D, 4DX, RealD, Laser Projection, etc, as well as many other services.
The hunt for the highest specs in Shanghai requires you get out of downtown. The best specs are in the mega-malls outside the city center.
The Formats: Digital IMAX, Onyx, ScreenX, 4DX, Dolby Atmos, RealD 6FL, Dolby Cinema (earlier 2019)
The Highlight: The first Onyx theater in Shanghai
How Far From People’s Square: 40 minutes metro and 10 minutes lost in the mall
Wanda. It’s the world’s largest cinema operator, and the specs of its cinema chains reflect its identity. This Wanda cinema is the first in China to launch Samsung’s Cinema “Onyx” LED Screen, a crisp, sharp and really bright screen (146FL, compared to the 4.5FL brightness at common 3D cinemas) great for appreciating the details of a 3D movie, or Zach Synder’s visual style. The battery-powered glasses are light and clear. The sound system is from JBL by HARMAN. This cinema also has three theaters equipped with both RealD 6FL and Christine 4K: the Dolby Atmos theater (#9), ScreenX theater (#11), and theater #10. Plus a Dolby Cinema said to be finished earlier next year.
The environment is also done well. Everyone gets a free bag of mixed nuts and fruit. A PA system announces when your theater opens. The attendants who hand out the glasses wear white gloves. Toilets still a little old-school though.
The Formats: Dolby Cinema, LUXE 2.0 (20m wide), Meyer Sound EXP, RealD 6FL
The Highlight: The first Dolby Cinema in Shanghai
How Far From People’s Square: 50 minutes by metro
Shanghai’s first Dolby cinema is on the top floor of Aegean Place in Minhang, right next to the wanghong Xinhua Bookstore designed by Tadao Ando. This cinema provides a great listening experience. Because aside from its Dolby cinema (with Dolby Atmos, of course), it also has a theater with Meyer Sound EXP, which is what professional filmmakers use while recording films. Hear what the directors hear.
Though Dolby has a smaller screen size than IMAX Laser (which debuted in Shanghai at HOYTS), it has better contrast: purer blacks, higher brightness, and an expanded color gamut. The seats, which have a lot of leg room, recline. The LUXE screen at Hongxing is also outstanding. It’s not only the widest in Shanghai (for now), but it’s also the first premium screen made by nanotechnology, which means better contrast. Hongxing also has a dedicated children’s theater, which has colorful Tetris-themed walls and chairs. If I have to nitpick, their 3D glasses are a little run-down. Still, Hongxing has many quality theaters and competent staff. There are also plenty of eateries close by as well as the Pearl Art Museum — enough to make it worth a half-day trip.
The Formats: Dolby Cinema, IMAX Laser, 4K RealD, MX4D
The Highlight: The first next-generation IMAX Laser projection
How Far From People’s Square: An hour, more or less, including a 15-minute walk
HOYTS is a sub-brand of Wanda, so the design and style is similar. It’s the first cinema in Eastern China to have the latest IMAX Laser projection, which is a brighter and more colorful upgrade from the common IMAX Xenon digital projection. For now, HOYTS also has the biggest IMAX screen in Shanghai: 25.9m wide and 13.5m tall, which comes with IMAX’s 12-channel sound technology.
The Jing’an IMIX Park mall is big, loud and confusing. You run a gauntlet of restaurants to get to the theater. And HOYTS’s amenities aren’t great. The lounge sucks and the toilet is hidden in the back of a coffee shop. Having said that, it’s the only cinema in Shanghai that has both Dolby Cinema and IMAX Laser, two excellent choices.
The Formats: Twin-digital IMAX 3D, Onyx, 4DX, RealD 6FL
The Highlight: Onyx theater with adjustable massage chairs
How Far From People’s Square: 20 minutes by metro
Recently renovated, Yonghua at Grand Gateway is good for eye candy. Look at those ticket scanners! So future! Wi-fi is strong and fast, so you can sit in a massage chair as you watch a movie in the Onyx theater (15rmb cool for 100 minutes). There are two VIP rooms, but not currently available. Maybe next year. The bathrooms are clean and sleek.
When it comes to the screen, though, Yonghua is not as impressive. The IMAX screen is 15m wide and just under 8m high. Sound isolation isn’t great, and the 3D glasses at the Onyx theater proved to be a hassle, as the lack of charge made me change my pair three times in less than an hour. Despite that, Yonghua has the most convenient location of all the cinemas listed here and the only Onyx screen in downtown. Specs are very decent. And it looks good on your Moments (groan).
The Formats: Star MAX, Dolby Atmos, MX4D
The Highlight: IMAX with stars
How Far From People’s Square: 30 minutes by metro
Star MAX? What the hell is Star MAX? As I found out on my trip to new mall LuOne: IMAX. With stars.
It’s more than that actually. Star MAX uses a hybrid of technologies from Dolby Laboratories, Sony, Klipsch, Tsinghua University's School of Architecture and many others. It has a giant curved screen and uses Dolby surround sound. The screen at OSGH’s theater #6 is 20m wide and 8.5m tall. Although it’s said to be equipped with Barco's 4K Laser projector, the details and contrast of the screen are close to digital IMAX than the higher-level IMAX Laser or Dolby Vision. The 3D effect is very in-your-face, but for fast action sequences it can be blurry. The theater intends to make you feel as if you are watching the film in a galaxy — the “stars” will be twinkling during the entire film, which might distract some people.
OSGH also has an MX4D theater. Compared with the more common 4DX, MX4D theater seats have a much stronger and faster “rollercoaster” effect, but other differences are less distinct.
One downside is the service. When I went, no one remembered to turn off the spotlights near the screen. I had to walk out of the theater to get them to fix it. OSGH offers an experience similar to digital IMAX with better sound system, and given its almost-downtown location. Ticket prices are good value.
Dolby Cinema is better than IMAX Laser, if you are not a size queen. In addition to the two above, there is a third Dolby screen in Shanghai at the Zhuanqiao Wanda (颛桥万达) in Minhang. I haven’t been but it has the largest screen of the three. Supposedly, the Palace Cinema chain is going to install the city’s fourth Dolby screen in the coming weeks but they haven’t said where just yet.
RealD’s LUXE provides good value for the price. This year when Avatar came to Shanghai International Film Festival with a brighter version, it was shown at three of the LUXE 2.0 theaters: Palace Cinema at Changning Raffles, Palace Cinema at The Mixc in Minhang, and Hongxing Cinema. Tickets at LUXE cinemas are much cheaper: blockbusters are less than 80rmb on weekends.
CGV Qibao, which opened in October, is almost as ambitious as Wanda. The cinema is equipped with an IMAX (digital, 19.3m wide), Sphere X, ScreenX, 4DX, and Gold Class.
Finally, a mention for the Shanghai Film Art Center on Xinhua Lu. They upgraded their “oriental mega screen”(东方巨幕) in 2016 specifically to screen Ang Lee’s ultra-fast frame-rate flick Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, making Shanghai one of only five cities in the world technically advanced enough to screen the 4K/3D/120 fps version. The theater itself is massive, it has perhaps the biggest auditorium in Shanghai, and the quality is great: watching the Ang Lee movie here was like watching 4k TV on a humongous scale.