IMAX: Chairman & President Greg Foster has attack of frankness with home-town audience

What is it like to control the wild card in the pack of international exhibition? László Kriston found IMAX supremo Greg Foster after a panel at Toronto 2013, and inveigled him into a conversation abo
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What is it like to control the wild card in the pack of international exhibition? László Kriston found IMAX supremo Greg Foster after a panel at Toronto 2013, and inveigled him into a conversation about the biggest screens south of the Equator. And the most specialised opportunities.

“Even watching paint dry in 3D is exciting,” IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond declared on stage, and you could tell that behind the semi-comic quip there was a conviction. He bloody meant it.

For audiences and filmmakers alike, IMAX is something else.

Screen hubs of growth

Around 2002, IMAX, as a corporation, clocked in $40,000,000 in box office revenue and operated only 50 theaters worldwide. Then came the first mainstream 3D movie, The Polar Express. In the ensuing years, Gelfond and Foster have been responsible for transforming the niche 3D company that was not very willing to licence its technologyinto a powerhouse which remains a mainstay of the industry’s technological development.

IMAX’s box office intake now accounts for 12 to 15 % of a major blockbuster’s gross revenue. In total, IMAX generates about US$1 billion in annual box office revenue.

Present in 54 countries with 350 theaters (plus 100 “institutional theaters” in places like museums), IMAX is veering towards implementing a strategy that puts an emphasis on local fare. In the autumn, they’re launching Fedor Bondarchuk’s Russian-language WWII epic, Stalingrad. Why? Because compared to the average annual gross per screen which is US$1 million in North America, Russian screens generate US$1.2 million. Not only that, Moscow has one deluxe IMAX venue where the nouveau riche shells out as much as US$85(!) for a ticket.

In the emerging markets, the Toronto-headquartered IMAX has the drawing power to charge premium prices. In India, admission to an IMAX cinema costs 4-5 times more than the regular US$2 ticket. In China, the locals pay US$15 for a 3D show.

International box office accounts for 65-66 % of Hollywood’s theatrical business. Its share in IMAX’s cake is 54 %. These data came out of a very informative talk Gelfond and Foster gave at the Glenn Gould Studio – normally used for audio recordings of award-winning movie soundtracks – as part of the “Moguls” series within the framework of TIFF’s industry programming.

Release windows, release strategies

Because of its contracts with certain studios, IMAX must carefully weigh where to push this and that film. Some blockbusters are sort of sidelined domestically (e.g. in America) because an IMAX partner is launching his own bet concurrently. For instance, IMAX couldn’t embrace White House Down in the American market because it would conflict with Man of Steel Sony’s gigantic $225 million gamble. Similarly, Life of Pi and Skyfall were in collision in 2012. Apparently, IMAX’s release patterns are locked in by its strategic partnerships with Warners, Sony and others.

But not entirely. As a follow up to the day-and-date policy, under which a blockbuster opened worldwise simulatenously in order to minimize the impact of movie piracy, now more nuanced release strategies are emerging. October is a month when usually there are few blockbusters banging their chests. This is the time of the year when IMAX can afford to take risks and experiment. US production company Picturehouse brought the concert-doc-cum-fantasy-movie, Metallica: Through the Never to IMAX. Foster was impressed by it. It will find its way to IMAX screens in October.

In the same spirit, IMAX and Gaumont have digitally remastered The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, the 3D film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who made Delicatessen and Amelie. The world premiere will occur as the closing film for the San Sebastian Film Festival on September 28th.

A maximum of 40 major movies are rolled out in IMAX theaters annually. 25 of them are traditional US studio movies (5 of these are kept outside of IMAX’s American venues because of above-mentioned conflicting interests with partnering studios), the rest is foreign language product.

Hands off my cameras!

New Zealand’s TIFF world premiere, Beyond the Edge was filmed with “IMAX camera” on a format “that used to be the 70mm” format, director Leanne Pooley and producer Matthew Metcalfe told ScreenHub, but the film won’t be released in IMAX theaters. Other films are not filmed with IMAX’s cameras, but get converted to be shown in IMAX theaters. If anyone, it’s Foster who understands the rationale behind this division.

Both he and Gelfond are very conscious about not diluting the IMAX brand. “Does the movie take you somewhere that you wished to, but otherwise wouldn’t? And is there a visionary director behind the movie?”, Gelfond asked rhetorically on stage. If the answers are no, the filmmaker applying for IMAX’s seal of approval (and its technology) is guaranteed a rejection.

“We turn down more movies than we say yes to,” Foster said on stage. After the panel, while he is wiping off the mandatory make up from his face, I ask him if there was any project from Australia that he turned down. “No. we’d be happy to [do Aussie films]. Certainly we do a lot of business and are close with Peter Jackson. He’s someone who’s been, especially in the last couple of years, an amazing partner of ours. I wanted to do Gatsby we just weren’t able to make it work because of the conflict that it had with Star Trek. But I’m all in favor [of working with Australian filmmakers].”

Paradoxically, it helps if those certain Australian filmmakers don’t shoot with IMAX cameras (and convert the 3D or 2D film to IMAX format in post). IMAX doesn’t put money into movie production, but tends to pay for the conversion process which usually costs US$1-2 million dollar per movie.

For mid-range budgeted indie genre films, this sort of IMAXing is not worth the cost. One reason is stylistc. “IMAX is not made for fast cuts and fuzzy camera movements,” says Foster. More importantly, the 2D cameras are “too costly to operate. The 3D cameras are better.” But hey, there’s a catch there! There aren’t many of them to go around. “We only have six of them and they’re occupied for the next two years by studio movies,” Foster tells me. (He didn’t indulge that information on stage).”We have a supply and demand issue. We have limited supply and crazy demand.”

Why don’t they get more cameras then? “Sometimes it’s good to have the supply-and-demand issue. Sometimes it’s good not to be able to offer everyone everything they want. I’d rather have quality than volume.” Eventually “we’ll have more of them. But not too many. We’ll always have just a little bit less than we need. That’s a strategy.” (So the old elistist stick about restricting access to IMAX technology is still pervailing, only this time it’s not in terms of cinemas, but cameras!)

So at what budget level can a movie safely afford to be shot with the technology of IMAX for an IMAX release? “For a 40-minute IMAX movie, it’s US$8-10 million.” For a feature-length film? “That’s not our doing, that’s them. The studios decide that,” replies Foster.

3D glass as Trojan horse

IMAX is upping the ante in the world premiere arena. Its theaters were traditionally too small to host high profile premieres. But with the 550-seat Lincoln Square Theatre in New York and the [formerly Grauman’s] Chinese Theatre with its 1,000 seats on Hollywood Boulevard, IMAX is now in a position to compete for these prestigious events. The next step is London’s Leicester Square where all the Bond movies bow. “We’re going into the Empire [cinema],” says Foster.

On the tech front, IMAX switched to a new laser screening technology, which is much more layered, brighter, allowing for a finer density, than what the “lamp technology” could ever offer. Also, an IMAX screen contains 26 % more info—13 % on the bottom of the screen, 13 % on the top—than the average screen in a theater near you. This means that Daniel Craig’s forehead gains epic proportions, and you can observe his walk, for his feet get fully featured, too.

Why has IMAX fared better going into China so far than the Hollywood majors? Foster thinks it’s because “We weren’t as threatening as Hollywood,” trying to tell the Chinese how to do business with them, how can they comply with the rules that American players set up for foreign partners. The new policy at IMAX is to go into a market and listen to the local industry personnel. When Chinese kids were seen donning 3D glasses, watching space films, the party bureaucrats saw IMAX less as a means of Western cultural colonialisation, and more as an educational device. “Make it a win-win situation and don’t be a sort of colonialist,” says Foster. (They have 40 staffers in the Communist country.)

Aussie business

“We care a lot about our business in Australia and New Zealand. It’s very important to us,” says Foster, who probably sang the same tune to at least 12 other markets. IMAX’s presence down under encompasses one venue in New Zealand and five theaters in Australia. “Business is very strong in two of our theaters, the Darling Harbour Theatre in Sydney and the Melbourne Museum. New Zealand is [doing] fine.”

Are there going to be new cinemas erected down under? “We are working very hard to expand our network in Australia and New Zealand”. What does that mean? “I would be very surprised in the next years if we haven’t seen more theaters in those two countries.” In short, no definite plans, but a strong intention. “I can’t promise, but my instinct is that it will happen.”

3D, 4D, 5D?

How much is IMAX fearful of the new generation’s addiction to small screens on mobile devices? Gelfond is positive that IMAX will remain the venue for “establishing movie experience like movie palaces” did back in the 1920s and 1930s. He counts on the “fanboys,” for whom IMAX could be instrumental in “restoring the thrill” of watching films on the big screen. (It is a politically correct answer in keeping with what an IMAX chief is supposed to say. Per Forbes magazine, he is paid $750,000 annually to not have a slip of tongue.)

That said, the IMAX brass keeps its options open and they’re continuing to get involved in a handful of R&D areas. “We’re doing everything. There’s nothing off the table. Our company is in a position right now where we can release money at this point to explore and see what’s up. And we are,” explains Foster. “There’s no boundaries to where we feel we can go as long as we enhance the experience.” (Innovation is in the company’s DNA: it became digital before the industry made that leap.)

The first time I attended Filmart in Hong Kong in 2007, I was taken with fellow journalists to a so-called 4D cinema at the airport. To my great surprise, the 4th dimension came from gimmicks like moving the seat and spraying liquids on the viewers. What I expected was that the 4th dimension will be added through the film not being projected frontally onto a sheet, but into the air in front of the first row, hence being visible from every direction. This kind of holographic projection we know from the holo-conferencing scenes in Star Trek and Star Wars movies. In our reality, even Anderson Cooper went live holographically once inside CNN’s studio. Will movies be projected that way?

Could a visionary director like Spielberg or James Cameron one day make fully holographic movies? “Not right now.” Ten or fifteen years down the road? “Yeah, probably. I think they’re up for anything if you can demonstrate that it makes a difference. Then why wouldn’t they do it?”

László Kriston
About the Author
László is a film critic and journalist, originally from Budapest, who is very active on the international festival scene.