With apologies to Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a movie studio in possession of a big slate must be in want of a big screen.
As Hollywood moves further toward concentrating solely on massive, hulking blockbusters – eight of last year’s 10 highest-grossing films were sequels – so, too, is the industry relying on massive, hulking screens to best showcase its FX-laden wares. Enter Imax, once a Canadian company focused on documentaries and nature films but which is now a critical plank in Hollywood’s battle to preserve the theatrical experience. Today’s audiences may be able to watch millions of hours of content inside the comfort of their own homes, but Imax’s high-resolution, size-is-everything presentation “eventicizes” the movie-going experience, in the words of chief executive Richard Gelfond.
Yet, even though the company is coming off its best year ever – in 2018, it broke the US$1-billion box-office barrier for the first time in its five-decade history – the film business’s ever-shifting landscape means that Imax, a company defined by its sheer bigness, will have to be gracefully nimble in its industry pivots.
The 2019 release calendar promises an armada of sure-bets: Avengers: Endgame, the Lion King remake, the new Spider-Man, Frozen 2, the latest Star Wars and last month’s Captain Marvel, which grossed US$36.1-million in Imax sales during its first weekend. But Imax – which doesn’t own theatres but licenses its technology and equipment to exhibitors for a take of the box-office sales, in addition to working with producers and directors during filming – will still have to face the streaming reckoning that is reshaping the industry. Last week, Apple unveiled details of its new streaming service, and the coming year promises to only fuel the war for eyeballs that pits theatre-owners against the likes of Netflix, Amazon and half a dozen other deep-pocketed players. For Imax, though, Gelfond only sees opportunity.
“There’s no question in my mind that as the amount of blockbuster content increases, someone is going to have to curate that and help it stand out from the pack, to ‘eventicize’ it, and Imax is historically your place to do that,” Gelfond says during a recent interview in Toronto, two weeks before the industry convenes at the annual CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. “There’s definitely opportunities to do that with streaming content, and we’ve talked with almost everyone in it or about to be in it. The issue with Netflix is that they don’t respect the theatrical window,” he adds, noting the fact that the streaming giant often makes its films available online the same day they’re released in theatres, a practice that theatre owners say cannibalizes their business. “If releasing movies is a real business for Netflix, they’ll need to find common ground. And when they do, we’ll be interested.”
Imax isn’t looking toward Hollywood alone. It already has a strong relationship with China – with about 600 theatres in the country today, and another “350 in backlog that will open in the next one to five years,” Gelfond says – which this winter paid off huge thanks to the success of The Wandering Earth. The Mandarin-language sci-fi epic, released during Chinese New Year in February, grossed US$45-million in Imax sales, becoming the company’s highest-grossing release ever in that market.
“Predicting the success of movies in China is difficult, and a few years ago, we would only choose one movie for that holiday period to show in Imax,” Gelfond says. “But two years ago, we started choosing three. This year, we had Crazy Alien, Pegasus and The Wandering Earth. By the second day of the holiday, The Wandering Earth was off the charts, so we had the flexibility to then go completely behind that. … It shows that sci-fi is now a valid genre in China, which bodes well for us.”
The international market isn’t without controversy. Last spring, Imax signed a deal with Middle Eastern exhibitor Vox Cinemas to partner on venues in Saudi Arabia, with Gelfond saying the untapped market – which last year opened its first movie theatres after a 35-year religious-based ban – presented “exciting and sizable new growth opportunities.” This was before the Oct. 2, 2018, death of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which ignited an international uproar over the kingdom’s regime. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had been courting the United States’ entertainment elite, is now facing swift backlash. Early in March, for instance, media giant Endeavor, the parent company of talent agency WME, returned a US$400-million investment from the Saudi government.
“Of course I’m not happy with what’s gone on there, and you’d have to have your head in the sand to not have general feelings on how things have gone recently,” Gelfond says. “On the other hand, getting Western content into Saudi Arabia is generally a very good thing for the country, for women and other groups who don’t have full rights there. When you take a step back, you could say, ‘I protest’ and not put our films there, but I think that would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Gelfond likens Imax’s commitment to the kingdom, which was on the tip of everyone’s tongue at last year’s CinemaCon as the theatre industry’s next great hope, to its China expansion. “Being part of a cultural change long term is a good thing,” he says. “We started in China in 2001, and now we have over 600 theatres, and I think the influences of our theatres and movies and culture has been positive for China and for Western-China relations. It’s not without ambiguity, but those Western values there is, long term, a good thing.”
Closer to home, Imax’s reality is less politically fraught. Speaking a few weeks before the release of Avengers: Endgame, Gelfond says he only sees a bright, and big, future. “We’re not an exhibitor, so we’re only dependent on the performances of blockbusters,” he says, “and I think that 2019 is shaping up to be an extraordinary year.”