The camera sweeps over Tom Cruise's head, the wind whipping through his hair, and pans down to reveal a vertiginous drop from the world's tallest building to the pavement far below. But when audiences watch Cruise scale Dubai's Burj Khalifa in the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise this weekend, they'll also be watching a company on the brink.
That's because Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol will be playing almost exclusively on Imax Corp.'s screens for the first five days of its release – the latest, and biggest of Imax's attempts to secure its place as a new marketing powerhouse for Hollywood. The studio, Paramount Pictures Corp., is keeping the movie out of regular theatres at first, screening it in 300 Imax theatres in North America. For the filmmakers, it's a marketing strategy meant to create buzz for the movie in a crowded holiday season. For Imax, it amounts to an exclusive opportunity, handed to the company for free.
Imax has tested an early-release window in a few international markets, including Russia, Mexico and Brazil, but has never done anything at this scale in the domestic market.
"We've already been approached by some other studios that have said they're following the results carefully," Imax chief executive officer Rich Gelfond said in an interview. "If it does work, they want to discuss with us the possibility of releasing other movies in a preview format. So there's a lot of opportunity in this for us."
For Imax, a head start at the box office with a major release has an obvious upside. But for the studio, it's also a way to stand out during a Christmas season packed with big-name titles, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and two Steven Spielberg releases, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.
"Studios have always seen Imax as a way to event-ize a release of a major film, to increase the buzz," said Canaccord Genuity analyst Aravinda Galappatthige. "I think if it works out, in 2012 you'll be seeing something similar … Imax is a big part of [the studios']marketing strategy."
Imax doesn't have to pay for the privilege of having exclusive rights to the premiere; the studios automatically get a box office boost when a movie does well in its theatres. At Imax screens in Cineplex locations, for example, tickets for Mission: Impossible this weekend will run $19 each for adults, a significant premium over the $12 regular admission. Increasingly, studios and theatre owners have been pushing these types of premium experiences – such as 3-D – that also allow them to charge higher ticket prices.
For the filmmakers, it's also a chance to show off the sequences they've shot with Imax's cameras, a trend that The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan started in 2008, making his Batman flick the first Hollywood feature film to shoot with technology traditionally used for Imax-only documentary films such as Everest. In Mr. Gelfond's office, where Imax's Oscar statue is stowed away in a drawer, a large Dark Knight poster takes pride of place on the wall beside his desk.
The Dark Knight landed Imax's biggest opening weekend ever at the time, with $8-million (U.S.) in ticket sales. Since then, other feature films have shot sequences with Imax film and cameras, such as Tron: Legacy, and roughly 25 minutes of the new Mission: Impossible – including the Burj scene. The use of that technology nets a fee for Imax and also creates an incentive to feature Imax screens in their marketing efforts.
In August of 2009, James Cameron hosted "Avatar Day" at Imax screens around the world, screening a 15-minute preview of his 3-D epic. In December, 2007, Mr. Nolan showcased a six-minute prologue of The Dark Knight in Imax theatres, and is doing the same thing this month with the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, which also shot Imax sequences and will be out this summer. As timing goes, it's a perfect fit: those Batman prologues will screen along with the previews, just before Mission: Impossible.
IMAX TESTS THE WATERS
Imax Corp. is getting the jump on the fourth instalment of Mission Impossible in its first five days in theatres, the first early opening of this size on its screens in North America. Until now, the idea of having an Imax-only early release for movies has been in the test phase, and has happened mainly in foreign markets:
Russia: Tron: Legacy opens in Imax only, one week in advance of other theatres.
France: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 opens two days earlier.
France: Tron: Legacy opens four days earlier.
Mexico: I Am Number Four opens one week earlier.
Brazil: Real Steel opens one week earlier.
North America: Super 8 opens for sneak previews on Imax screens, but only one day earlier.
Mexico: Super 8 opens one week earlier.