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For Imax, the prospects are as big as the screens

What's the big movie news in 2012? Recently, the consensus is that the eight-storey-high Imax screen is the No. 1 story in Hollywood. Imax, a global company that started life in the hallways of the National Film Board in Montreal more than 40 years ago, develops theatres that have become the preferred venues for launching every major blockbuster in Hollywood this year, and seems to be leading a rebound in box-office receipts and the company's fortunes.

Through the first six weeks of the year, Imax screens generated ticket sales of $55-million (all figures U.S.), a 45-per-cent increase over the same period in 2011 and well ahead of the 20-per-cent bounce in overall movie attendance this year.

"If you've got a big movie, an action-adventure movie, a fanboy-oriented movie – if you're not talking to Imax, you're out to lunch," Rich Ingrassia, a research analyst with Roth Capital Management, told the online movie trade publication The Wrap.

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Last week, USA Today quoted Jeff Block of the movie-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations saying that Imax is "fulfilling the promise that 3-D didn't keep, that it would be unlike anything you've seen. And unlike great sound or 3-D glasses, you can't replicate Imax at home unless you have a six-storey screen." Added's Paul Dergarabedian: "There's a consensus that, with all the ads, all the gimmicks Hollywood pulls, Imax is the real deal."

Even box-office dud John Carter opened well on Imax, earning more than $5-million – 16.5 per cent of John Carter's entire opening-weekend take in the United States and Canada.

Back in December, the latest Mission: Impossible, Ghost Protocol, played exclusively on Imax screens for the first five days of its release, and although only nine per cent of the film's screenings were in Imax theatres, they accounted for 23 per cent of the film's box-office earnings in its first month. Suddenly, an early Imax release became de rigueur.

This year's 25-film Imax slate includes The Hunger Games (which rang up $10.2-million on the giant screens during its opening weekend), this week's Wrath of the Titans and next week's 3-D re-release of Titanic. Upcoming blockbusters include The Avengers, the third Men in Black, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, the 23rd James Bond, Skyfall, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While Imax continues to present animated films and produce its own nature films – To the Arctic opens next month – it has found its main new niche: fanboy audiences and blockbuster movies.

People have long recognized Imax's big potential, even when no one quite knew what to do with it. NFB filmmakers Colin Low and Roman Kroitor (co-director of the Paul Anka cinéma vérité classic Lonely Boy) designed the first Imax movie project, Labyrinth, for Expo 67 in Montreal. And when Fuji Bank offered to invest in the technology for Expo '70 in Japan, the company was formed by Kroitor, Graeme Ferguson, Billy Shaw and Robert Kerr, shooting nature and exploration films for theme parks and museums.

In 1994, Imax was acquired by U.S. investors in a $100-million leveraged buy-out and went public on the Nasdaq exchange for $13.50 a share. The stock peaked at more than $49 in 1999, but then attendance started to drop. For more than a decade, the company's finances were precarious, and the firm was put up for sale twice without finding a buyer. In 2001, the share price dipped below $1, and following a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry, Imax was forced to restate financial results from 2002 to 2006, resulting in investors' class action suits in both the U.S. and Canada.

Where the company has succeeded, unequivocally, was as a new friend to Hollywood. In 2001, former MGM executive Greg Foster was brought in to salvage Imax by bridging the gap to Hollywood. Now chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment, he spent a year, he says, "with a laptop and a PowerPoint presentation" knocking on studio doors, trying to convince them Imax screenings would help their businesses. In 2002, Imax began "upconverting" conventional films, starting with Ron Howard's Apollo 13. Since then, more than 100 Hollywood films have been repurposed for the Imax format. The films that struck a chord with the public include The Polar Express, Batman Begins, 300, The Dark Knight and, especially, Avatar, which made Imax the go-to format for big-screen spectacles.

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The company has expanded aggressively over the past decade, especially in the past five years when the number of Imax screens tripled to more than 630 worldwide. The firm targeted burgeoning markets in China and India and, since 2007, signed major deals with U.S. chains including AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment Group, placing Imax screens in almost every community, with new theatres coming online at a rate of 200 a year.

One of the factors driving that success isn't immediately obvious. According to Foster, Imax's greatest allies in convincing Hollywood of its importance have been the filmmakers who were raised on the huge Imax nature films and are determined to create the same "wow" effect in their own movies. Zack Snyder ( 300), James Cameron ( Avatar) and Chris Nolan ( Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) are techno-geek directors who love the big format. Nolan studied it for a year. Cameron urged fans to see Avatar on the Imax screens. Brad Bird, who used Imax cameras for about 30 minutes of Ghost Protocol, insisted on the limited Imax release over 3-D to bring "a level of showmanship" that was lost in the multiplex era.

The company wants to work with filmmakers who are sold on the process and willing to spend the time learning it. Imax makes sure the brand is promoted by the studio partners, and it looks for certain kinds of films, ones with "scope." It is, as Foster says, "the world's largest magnifying glass," and not all movie's suit that treatment. Foster's brother Gary, for example, produced the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance Sleepless in Seattle. "That's not an Imax film," says Foster.

The other condition is that the movie should take a viewer someplace where he or she is never likely to visit, whether it's the far Arctic in the Imax nature film To the Arctic (coming next month), or atop a skyscraper with Batman.

Does that mean it's a forum that doesn't work with close-ups?

"Not necessarily," says Foster. "It depends on the skill of the filmmaker. When we first showed Apollo 13 to Ron Howard, we all watched the wide master shot of the rocket taking off and then there was the close-up of Jim Lovell's wife [Kathleen Quinlan] and you saw the tears in her eyes, and her pride, and a quasi-fearful expression all at once. That was the exact point where Ron yelled. "I'm in! Let's go!"

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Titanic 3D James Cameron's 1997 movie is launched into theatres once again, this time in an extra dimension, with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on board, Celine Dion singing and the penny-whistles tooting, to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the sinking of the famous ship.

The Moth Diaries Canadian director Mary Harron (American Psycho) directs this adaptation of Rachel Klein's 2002 novel about a 16-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), who becomes obsessed with her private school roommate, Lucie (Sarah Gadon), and Lucy's friendship with the disturbing new girl, Ernessa (Lily Cole), who may or may not be a vampire.

The Salt of Life Italy's answer to Woody Allen, Gianni di Gregorio, follows up his whimsical Mid-August Lunch with this film about a middle-aged retiree, dominated by his mother and ignored by his wife and daughter, who begins fantasizing about a great romance.

Bully Director Lee Hirsch's documentary looks at bullying in America by following five students over the course of a year as they suffer persecution. The film cross-cuts among the stories, focusing on kids, parents and school officials.

The Girl in the White Coat Director Darrell Wasyk's feature is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's influential 19th-century short story, The Overcoat. The film is set in contemporary Montreal, where Elise, a factory worker, takes her battered old coat to a tailor, with life-changing results.

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