CHATTANOOGA — Since the first frame of “Into the Deep” was projected on its six-story screen, countless visitors have embarked on cinematic voyages into space, below the Earth’s surface, back in time and into the deepest depths of the ocean at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater.
Well … formerly countless.
On Wednesday, the theater celebrated the arrival of its nine millionth guest since opening its doors on May 1, 1996. Amanda Brock and her daughter Lenie Kate arrived at the theater while visiting from Dalton to see “Sea Lions: Life by a Whisker 3D.”
“This is our first time at the IMAX,” Amanda Brock said. “We’ve been to the Tennessee Aquarium many times, but this is the first time to see a movie here.”
To celebrate their milestone contribution to the first 3D theater in Chattanooga, Amanda Brock was surprised with a celebratory gift package. The Aquarium filled it with certificates for a two-night stay at the Chattanoogan Hotel, a family four-pack of passes to the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX 3D Theater as well as gift items from the Chattanooga Tourism Company, including a VIP pass to more than one dozen Chattanooga-area attractions.
Guests like Amanda and Lenie have visited the IMAX 3D Theater for the last 26 years, drawn by the allure of viewing films on the largest screen in Chattanooga — a 5,874-square-foot behemoth — but also experiencing consistently cutting-edge cinematic technology.
Today, 3D film screenings are largely commonplace, but when the Aquarium’s theater opened in 1996 it was the only 3D-capable cinema in the region.
The next-closest location to experience the immersive qualities of true-color 3D film was 500 miles away in New Orleans.
Despite the advance of digital projection technology in the 2010s, the IMAX 3D Theater was one of the Scenic City’s last holdouts for physical film projection. That changed in 2016 when the theater underwent a comprehensive overhaul that saw its projection system upgraded to IMAX with Laser. This peerless video and audio suite features 12-channel sound and dual, 4K laser projectors, a setup used by only 14 other theaters worldwide at the time of its installation.
Being forward-thinking and strategically adopting new and innovative technology has been key to the theater’s popularity and continuing success, said Gordon Stalans, the Aquarium’s chief financial officer and chief information officer.
“We’ve always felt that we needed to stay on the front edge and keep the theater as current as it can be,” said Stalans, who formerly served as board chair of the Giant Screen Cinema Association. “Many of our guests come to the theater looking for a complement to their Aquarium visit, and this is a natural complement.
“This is a premium movie experience, and people have always appreciated that experience, particularly since the upgrade to IMAX with Laser.”
In addition to its popular showings of shorter-format nature and adventure films, the IMAX 3D Theater recently has begun to host first runs of feature films like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Dune.” The theater’s current offerings include “Sea Lions: Life By a Whisker 3D,” “Wings Over Water 3D” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (screening daily through Nov. 27).
For more details about the offerings at the IMAX 3D Theater, including a screening schedule and advance ticket purchases, visit tnaqua.org/imax.
The Tennessee Aquarium and Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater are open daily but will be closed on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 24.
By the numbers
• 9,993 — number of screenings of the theater’s longest-running offering, “Into the Deep.”
• 5,874 — size of the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater’s screen in square feet.
• 2.8 — how much larger the screen is than the median Chattanooga home.
• 14 — number of theaters, worldwide, that employed IMAX with Laser projection when the IMAX 3D Theater began using it in 2016.
• 9,600 — approximate number of days of operation for the theater since opening.
• 3 — time, in weeks, for the theater to undergo an upgrade to an IMAX with Laser projection system.
• $14 million — cost to build the theater in 1996 ($25.4 million, adjusted for inflation).
The top five most successful films shown at the IMAX 3D Theater are:
• “Into the Deep”
• “Ocean Wonderland”
• “Deep Sea 3D”
• “Sharks 3D”