There was a time when we went to Imax theaters for whales and rockets.

That was when the big big screen was for shorter educational films about the deep sea, outer space and wild kingdoms -- movies shot on big Imax film with big Imax cameras.

Now we go to Imax for eccentric candymen and superheroes with bat complexes. And we're going more often.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was No. 1 at the box office last weekend with a $56.1 million take, $2.2 million of which was made on 65 Imax screens. It was Imax's biggest opening weekend ever, besting the debuts of "Batman Begins" and last winter's "The Polar Express," which eventually grossed a record-breaking $45 million on 83 Imax screens.

When "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" opens in November, it will be the year's fourth Hollywood feature to open simultaneously in Imax and regular 35mm theaters. There were three such releases last year ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Spider-Man 2" and "The Polar Express") and two the year before that (the final legs of "The Matrix" trilogy). Next year there will be six, maybe more.

Imax's corporate strategy is to entice Americans happiest in front of a 60-inch plasma-screen TV, wrapped in the fuzzy warmth of a Netflix plan.

"Consumers are saying, 'In order to get me out of the home, you need to wow me, you need to give me something special,' " says Rich Gelfond, co-chairman and co-CEO of Imax, which is jointly headquartered in Toronto and New York.

"[Imax] helps 'eventize' our big movies," says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio behind half of the feature film releases on Imax. "And we will continue to release our big films that way." Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Columbia and Disney have also released features in Imax.

"What's great about Imax is that in this sea of uncertainty, or seeming malaise at the box office, they're filling theaters," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., the box office tracking firm.

The regular box office is still down 7.5 percent, but Imax is up 37 percent, according to Greg Foster, Imax's co-chairman and president of filmed entertainment. "Charlie" made double on its Imax screens what it did on regular screens.

But not everyone is sold on Imax. "Our experience at Fox is still under review," says Julian Levin, vice president of digital exhibition and non-theatrical sales and distribution at Fox, which released "Robots" this year on Imax. "Other than the sort of unique bump with 'Polar Express,' the performance of the other pictures really haven't shown to be that incredibly remarkable."

The folks at Imax compare their brand to Starbucks for coffee or Tiffany for jewelry, in that people will pay a premium price for an amplified, high-quality experience -- in this case, gargantuan crystal-clear images and booming 12,000-watt sound you can't get in a home theater.

At the moment, there is no commercial Imax theater in the Washington area, but that may change soon. The Smithsonian, which has three, is currently deciding whether Hollywood fare jibes with its educational mission. And Imax is in "advanced discussions" with a commercial exhibitor to open a D.C.-area Imax.

Regal Gallery Place has an auditorium designed to handle large-format films -- as do all of Regal's new multiplexes, says Neal Pinsker, a senior vice president of Regal Entertainment. He says the company has no specific plans to open an Imax screen in the D.C. area.

But 75 screens are slated to open elsewhere in the next few years -- including 25 in China -- toward the eventual goal of 1,000 locations worldwide, according to Imax.

This momentum has built over the last three years because of two acronyms: DMR and MPX. DMR, or digital remastering, is a quick, relatively cheap process that converts and enhances the image and sound quality of 35mm films for Imax exhibition. MPX, or multiplex, is a lower-cost Imax system designed for existing movie houses; the theater is retrofitted by bringing the screen forward and expanding it wall to wall and floor to ceiling and upgrading the sound system.

But despite that Starbucks analogy, Imax's Gelfond admits you aren't going to see an Imax on every corner. "You have to have a sort of zone where they'd succeed," he says. "So I don't see Imax replacing 35mm, but . . . I think Imax will become a more important part of a studio's release pattern."

So to see the candyman now, you have to take a day trip north to the Regal Imax in King of Prussia, Pa., or south to the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton.

The Imax projector at the Virginia Air & Space Center is the size of a lawn tractor -- and just as loud.

"Watch yourself, it's tight back here," says Bill Mingee, the center's Imax-certified projectionist. He shines a flashlight and then slips through a foot-long space between the back wall of the projection room and a spinning platter, which is currently spitting out film for "Fighter Pilot," a Boeing Imax production.

"This is 'Charlie.' " Mingee points to a platter six feet in diameter, where 166,000 frames of Imax film, wound up, look like a cross-section of a tree trunk. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is ready to be moved by forklift onto a platter for the sold-out 2:25 p.m. show, when this giant circle of film, quiet and brown and still, will become a 50-foot-by-70-foot swath of color.

Sounds like a big deal, but isn't that the nature of Imax -- to make as big a deal as possible?

The world's largest Imax screen is the 97-foot-by-117-foot Panasonic Theatre in Sydney, Australia. The Imax film frame area is three times that of the standard 70mm frame, and 10 times the 35mm frame. Hold a piece of wood in front of the 15,000-watt light beam from a larger Imax projector, and it would catch fire. Send the projector to the moon, and we could see the beam from the Earth with the naked eye.

"I have a hard time going to conventional movie houses after working all these years here," Mingee says as an F-15 Eagle roars on the screen just outside the projection room's glass window. "I think it's the best image possible."

It's an image that's been honed over Imax's 40-year existence and only recently brought to the masses through the DMR process. The air and space center has shown every DMR feature since "Apollo 13" in '02, and sold out nine of its 12 "Charlie" shows last weekend.

"We thought this would be something for our evening audiences and would help offset the cost of our educational programs," says Kim Hinson, deputy director of the center. "It also gets people into the center because they buy combo exhibit tickets."

Outside the theater doors, a half-hour before "Charlie" starts, the line stretches the length of the center. A large reproduction of a Wonka Bar is fastened to the wall. The poster, with Johnny Depp and top hat, reminds everyone that "IMAX IS THE GOLDEN TICKET." Theaters usually charge a 30 percent premium on admission prices; you might pay up to $15 at an Imax-operated theater but $9.90 at an institutional venue like the Virginia Air & Space Center.

"If it pleases the grandchildren, it's always worth it," says Jim McCulloch of Williamsburg, who waited in line with his wife, Linda, and their grandchildren, Kaitlyn and Kellison Hering, who were visiting from Houston. Had they seen an Imax film before?

"Yes," they all answer.

Which one?

"Something about rockets," Jim says.

"Something about sharks," says Kellison, 14.

Have they seen a Hollywood film in Imax?

"We tried at Christmas, but we couldn't get in," Linda says. She's referring to "The Polar Express."

The theater opens and all the 283 seats fill up. The lights dim and a promotional video for downtown Hampton plays on a grainy mini-projection that is dwarfed by the gigantic, curved Imax screen.

Then the preview title from the Motion Picture Association of America pops onto the screen, filling it, casting a bright, expansive green glow on the audience. Everyone gasps -- and the preview for "Harry Potter" hasn't even started.

"Batman Begins" director Christopher Nolan, who saw some of his dailies on an Imax screen in London and found it "astounding," says of the Imax experience: "It takes you right back to the scale of movies that you felt when you were a little kid in some large movie palace. And for me, that's what I'm striving for, to get back to the sense of scale in films."

When Nolan, who also made "Memento" and "Insomnia," thinks about the future of Imax, he sees more than just swooping superheroes and animated family fare.

"When Cinemascope and Cinerama were invented to compete with television and everything went widescreen, it was for the big tent-pole movies," Nolan says. "And then ultimately it permeated down to the point where we did 'Memento' in Cinemascope and that was completely accepted. I think that it's action films and the cinema of spectacle that drive technological innovation. But I firmly believe, then, that all different types and genres of films ultimately tend to follow."

Imax and some studio executives say it's a format reserved for tent-pole movies -- they need the buzz of a blockbuster to increase the odds that they'll recoup the high costs of the format.

Still, imagine an Imax reissue of "Casablanca," and the feel of actually being in the smoky, arid sauna of Rick's Cafe Americain. Then, imagine Ingrid Bergman's glorious face 70 feet high as she turns to see Bogart for the first time since Paris.

It's an experience David Thomson wants. Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood," was amazed years ago by the stunning photography of "Yellowstone," an Imax film on the national park. He would, however, love to see the crowded cafe scenes of "Casablanca" writ large.

"I think the mistake is in thinking that the Imax films have got to be very, very spectacular," Thomson says. "Just to see what it feels like, I would love to see a much simpler, more domestic kind of film tried in Imax."

That sound you hear is the collective sharp intake of breath at the prospect of seeing a David Lynch film eight stories high.

It's the stuff -- like Imax itself once was -- of pure imagination.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Batman Begins" are currently getting the very big screen treatment."Spider-Man 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" were among the Hollywood features shown in Imax and regular-format theaters last year.